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Inside Kerry’s Leadership Changes for 2016

Kerry plans to name his chief of staff as head of Policy Planning, a move that seeks to revitalize Foggy Bottom’s moribund ideas shop.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and State Department Chief of Staff Jon Finer (L) meet with members of the US delegation at the garden of the Palais Coburg hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2015. Iran accused major powers on Friday of backtracking on previous pledges and throwing up new "red lines" at nuclear talks, after the deadline to reach an agreement in time to receive expedited scrutiny from the US Congress expired with no deal. AFP PHOTO / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA        (Photo credit should read CARLOS BARRIA/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry and State Department Chief of Staff Jon Finer (L) meet with members of the US delegation at the garden of the Palais Coburg hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2015. Iran accused major powers on Friday of backtracking on previous pledges and throwing up new "red lines" at nuclear talks, after the deadline to reach an agreement in time to receive expedited scrutiny from the US Congress expired with no deal. AFP PHOTO / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA (Photo credit should read CARLOS BARRIA/AFP/Getty Images)

In a major personnel decision heading into his final year in office, Secretary of State John Kerry plans to appoint Chief of Staff Jon Finer to lead the Office of Policy Planning, the State Department’s in-house think tank, three administration officials told Foreign Policy.

The appointment will place Finer in direct control of a new staff tasked with offering unorthodox solutions to the secretary’s most intractable policy problems. At the same time, Finer will maintain his existing responsibilities as chief of staff, which means he will have to balance the day-to-day duties of running Foggy Bottom with the crafting of U.S. policy.

The move comes as the White House leans harder on the State Department to generate fresh ideas to resolve the civil war in Syria, a slow-burning catastrophe that has resulted in at least 250,000 deaths, millions of refugees, and the global growth of the Islamic State.

“This very much follows the Jake Sullivan model,” said a State Department official, referring to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to put her deputy chief of staff in a dual-hatted role as director of Policy Planning.

The timing of Finer’s promotion is contingent on the Senate confirmation of David McKean, the current head of Policy Planning, as ambassador to Luxembourg.

McKean, a longtime Kerry aide, has been serving as director of Policy Planning since February 2013. But under his leadership, the office has stagnated, according to current and former officials, developing a reputation as a graveyard for policy memos that operates too slowly to be effective.

“People thought McKean would be a powerful director given his long history with Kerry,” said a former State Department official. “But some people can’t make up their minds fast enough to be effective in the bureaucracy.”

McKean, through the public affairs office, did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement to Foreign Policy, Kerry defended his longtime aide, saying he has relied on McKean’s “sharp analysis and strategic vision for two decades.”

“Since he became director of Policy Planning, he and his team have helped define a new relationship with Cuba, chart a course to the most ambitious climate agreement ever negotiated, and cement the rebalance to Asia, among many other contributions,” Kerry said. 

Senior State Department officials say that with 12 months left in the Obama presidency, Kerry wants to streamline the policymaking process by making the wonkier academic types at Policy Planning report directly to his front office.

There are pros and cons to using an office designed for long-term strategic thinking in this way, say experts.

“Every secretary of state can decide whether he or she wants to use Policy Planning as more their extended crisis team or for longer-term thinking,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, Hillary Clinton’s first director of Policy Planning, told FP.

By putting Finer in charge of Policy Planning, Kerry can turn the office into a kind of mini-National Security Council full of policy experts he can deputize for fast-developing crises. But it puts a lot of pressure on the chief of staff to manage both jobs.

“The danger with being dual-hatted is the urgent and important always trumps the important but not urgent,” said Slaughter.

A senior administration official said that with only one year left in office, it doesn’t make sense to invest in long-term thinking when the next administration will inevitably throw everything out and start anew.

Inside the building, the move also risks angering the regional bureaus of the State Department, which at times compete with the director of Policy Planning for the ear of the secretary on various policy debates.

But others say the benefits of the move far outweigh the potential downsides.

“I see the two roles as mutually reinforcing,” Bill Burns, the former deputy secretary of state and a previous head of Policy Planning, told FP. “I think you can provide more effective strategic focus when you have day-to-day access to the secretary, which grounds you in reality.”

“Not everybody can perform that dual role well, but I’m entirely confident that Jon Finer can because he’s got all the right attributes,” Burns added.

Jim Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state and Policy Planning chief, said that Finer’s closeness to the secretary was an asset. “If you have a strong relationship with the secretary, it gives you two advantages: The views of your staff will be heard because you have access to the secretary and the rest of the State Department engages more with you because they know you have a good relationship with the secretary,” he told FP.

Finer, a former war correspondent for the Washington Post, has essentially been serving as Kerry’s top policy advisor since he was appointed as deputy chief of staff. A Rhodes scholar with a scruffy beard, Finer previously served at the White House as an aide to Vice President Joe Biden and to ex-Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, the current deputy secretary of state.

As a former reporter, he operates comfortably with the State Department press corps but won’t hesitate to enforce reporting ground rules if his boss is exposed. Earlier this year, he banished a Wall Street Journal reporter from the secretary’s plane for a trip after the journalist was accused of using Kerry’s off-the-record comments for his reporting.

At the top of Finer’s to-do list is making progress on the diplomatic front in Syria, where continued Russian and Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has created a bloody stalemate as the United States and its allies continue to back the Syrian opposition. The pressure to deliver a solution to the diplomatic imbroglio comes directly from the Oval Office.

Last month, at a National Security Council meeting, President Barack Obama instructed his cabinet to give him more options on how to resolve the crisis in Syria even if they involved a more expansive role for the U.S. military. According to officials briefed on the meeting, the president made it clear that while he may not sign off on more hawkish policy recommendations, such as the creation of a no-fly zone or humanitarian corridor, he wanted to hear the arguments in favor of them.

Many at the State Department viewed the instruction as an indication that the president believed some of his aides were self-censoring recommendations they thought the White House was disinclined to hear.

In any event, the president’s directive has immediate implications for the State Department’s top policy minds.

This is exactly the kind of signal that Policy Planning ought to respond to,” said Burns. “When it’s performing its role well, Policy Planning is going to constantly look at current policy lines and look at alternatives that might work better.”

Created in 1947 by famed diplomat George Kennan at the request of then-Secretary of State George Marshall, Policy Planning serves as the main incubator for mid- and long-term strategic planning at the State Department.

Often romanticized as a source of “crucial” strategic thinking, it was lampooned by John F. Kennedy’s former Secretary of State Dean Rusk for sharing the qualities of a local symphony orchestra: a nice asset to a city, but something people rarely visited because they found it at once virtuous and boring.

The office boasts a 30-member staff of policy experts, which includes the secretary’s four principal speechwriters, led by Bill Woodward. Over the last 60 years, secretaries of state have exploited the staff in a variety of unique ways, but often times as a means of generating unconventional policy options.

In the late 1990s, the Office of Policy Planning played an influential role in convincing President Bill Clinton to take military action against Serbia in the Kosovo War. “That came directly out of my office,” said Mort Halperin, who served as director of Policy Planning from 1998 to 2001. “It would never have come through EUR [the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs] because they were too risk-averse.”

“But that’s a situation where the office can help,” he added. “When you need new ideas and the regional bureaucracy in charge isn’t giving them to you.”

While strengthening the hand of Kerry’s chief of staff throughout the building, the move also marks a winnowing out of some of Kerry’s longest-serving advisors during his final year at the department.

David Wade, a longtime staffer from Kerry’s days in the Senate, stepped down as chief of staff earlier this year. McKean, if confirmed by the Senate, will leave for the relative obscurity of his post in Luxembourg City. Bill Danvers, Kerry’s deputy chief of staff, left Foggy Bottom for France in 2013 to serve as deputy secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In October, Doug Frantz announced that he would leave his position as assistant secretary of state for public affairs to succeed Danvers at the OECD. (Apparently, they shared an affection for working in Paris.) Glen Johnson and David Thorne both remain at the State Department as senior advisors to Kerry, and Frank Lowenstein continues to serve as special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.

This article has been updated. 

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Dec. 18, 2015: Glen Johnson is a senior advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry. A previous version of this article misspelled his first name.

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