Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Should Obama listen to the conventional wisdom in choosing his national security team?

President Obama seems to have two options in assigning the top three national security spots (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor): follow the conventional beltway wisdom or go his own way and do what he thinks is best. The conventional wisdom is that Obama should pick a Democratic “dream team.” That ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Obama seems to have two options in assigning the top three national security spots (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor): follow the conventional beltway wisdom or go his own way and do what he thinks is best.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama should pick a Democratic "dream team." That would put Senator Kerry in the Secretary of State slot. He is the Democratic Party's acknowledged congressional leader on foreign policy and would be a shoo-in to be confirmed. He has certainly earned the president's favor, having rescued the administration from some tricky foreign policy predicaments, and he clearly wants the job. The Obama political operation appears willing to risk the Democratic Senate seat in the by-election to replace him. He will not have the celebrity star power that Hillary Clinton had, but there is no one (except her husband -- or perhaps Colin Powell) who could come close to matching that anyway, and Kerry probably is the biggest name available. Secretary Clinton's most important contribution to foreign policy in the past four years has been this high profile "face of America" role -- certainly she had a bigger impact in that role than in shaping key policy debates inside the interagency -- and so seasoned foreign policy hands recognize the importance of making a high-stature appointment.

For Defense, the conventional wisdom is that either of the top two underlings from the first term -- current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter or former UnderSecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy -- would be strong picks. Neither would face a contentious confirmation fight or a steep learning curve. Both enjoy bipartisan respect and would be as capable in selling Obama's controversial defense cuts as anyone he could pick. Both would be trusted to do the best that could be done to mitigate the damage those cuts risk doing to national security.

President Obama seems to have two options in assigning the top three national security spots (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor): follow the conventional beltway wisdom or go his own way and do what he thinks is best.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama should pick a Democratic “dream team.” That would put Senator Kerry in the Secretary of State slot. He is the Democratic Party’s acknowledged congressional leader on foreign policy and would be a shoo-in to be confirmed. He has certainly earned the president’s favor, having rescued the administration from some tricky foreign policy predicaments, and he clearly wants the job. The Obama political operation appears willing to risk the Democratic Senate seat in the by-election to replace him. He will not have the celebrity star power that Hillary Clinton had, but there is no one (except her husband — or perhaps Colin Powell) who could come close to matching that anyway, and Kerry probably is the biggest name available. Secretary Clinton’s most important contribution to foreign policy in the past four years has been this high profile “face of America” role — certainly she had a bigger impact in that role than in shaping key policy debates inside the interagency — and so seasoned foreign policy hands recognize the importance of making a high-stature appointment.

For Defense, the conventional wisdom is that either of the top two underlings from the first term — current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter or former UnderSecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy — would be strong picks. Neither would face a contentious confirmation fight or a steep learning curve. Both enjoy bipartisan respect and would be as capable in selling Obama’s controversial defense cuts as anyone he could pick. Both would be trusted to do the best that could be done to mitigate the damage those cuts risk doing to national security.

That leaves Susan Rice looking for a spot to land, and the conventional wisdom is that she would make a fine National Security Advisor. She clearly has the trust of the president, which is the single most important criterion for success, and she would be seen as an equal by the other principals (another important criterion). This is also a non-confirmable post, so the Benghazi unpleasantness would pose no hurdle. There is the awkwardness that the job is currently filled by someone who wants to stay, Tom Donilon, but the conventional wisdom is that it would be no bad thing for President Obama to start the second term with a clean slate. Indeed, as one Obama insider put it, an “intervention” may be needed to repair the dysfunctions of the first term. The president could also consider many other worthy names for spots on the “dream team ” that were also in circulation four years ago — Richard Danzig, John Hamre, Jim Steinberg, to name just a few — but they all have in common this “clean slate” feel.

The trial balloons floating out of the White House suggest that President Obama doesn’t agree with the conventional wisdom. It appears he wants to put Susan Rice at State — never mind that some Senators seem willing to serve the sauce for Rice’s goose that she merrily served to their gander over the years. Even some Democratic voices have raised doubts (here and here) about whether Rice is a good fit at State.

And if Rice is at State, what to do with the loyal Kerry? The consolation prize appears to be Defense — never mind the doubts that a Senate office is the wrong training ground for managing such an unwieldy bureaucracy. Or perhaps Kerry would be left at the altar altogether, which would mean that Obama’s rocky relations with Congress would have one more unhappy boulder to contend with.

And if Rice is at State, that means Donilon is likely to stay as National Security Advisor, which leaves the slate uncleaned.

When facing similar choices in the past, Obama has tended to follow his own lead and ignore the conventional wisdom and so I guess the best bet is that he will do so again. But sometimes the conventional wisdom has a certain, well, wisdom to it.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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