Give Defense to Clinton, not State

by | Nov 17, 2008

The rumour that Barack Obama may appoint Hilary Clinton as his top diplomat has filled the Sunday papers. Personally, I think she would be a better Defense Secretary or a nominee to the Supreme Court, although she is bound to do well as Secretary of State too.

If she were given the State Department, she is more likely to follow Colin Powell’s management style -– which a place like Foggy Bottom sorely needs –- than emulate Condi Rice’s neglect of the department. At the same time, she is likely to play a key role in foreign policy, unlike General Powell, as President Obama is compelled to focus on the economy.

It is just that I think Senator Clinton would do better at the Pentagon. She supported the Iraq War, which will make her better at coaxing the military into a draw-down of forces and a shift of focus onto Afghanistan. Though the officers and soldiers will accept the democratic transition from Bush to Obama, a military that has gone to war twice, suffered both casualties and reputationally, and seen itself as the sharp end of U.S foreign policy for eight years will need to be helped to make the switch by someone they trust. With her hawkish views, time on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and work on Unified Action, a large U.S military exercise, the New York senator is well placed to take this role on.

Being the first female Pentagon chief would also be in keeping with her ceiling-busting ambitions and President Elect Obama’s transformational creed. If she handles the portfolio competently –- and is not tired by politics or mired in scandal — she would be well-placed to make a run for the White House in 2016 (as a sprightly 69-year old, a year younger than when Ronald Regan was elected).

Finally, Hillary Clinton also seems to realize something which seems to be missing from the Obama transition: the need for the U.S National Security System to be reformed. She was an early supported of a so-called Goldwater-Nichols reform of the U.S government and would bring a reforming zeal to the Pentagon, which is needed if the U.S military is to take on task such as counter-insurgency, stabilisation and security assistance with the same zeal that it embraces war-fighting.

At the State Department, President Obama needs someone that’s both hawkish but also a natural negotiator. To me, Bill Richardson fits this bill. His Hispanic heritage and Roman Catholic faith would make his appointment another first. But better still, he knows the UN from his time as U.S ambassador to the world body and has been a key negotiator in talks with North Korea and Sudan.

Though Clinton may have boasted of visiting 80-some countries, Richardson has toured some of the most hostile corners of the planet, venturing into nations where Americans are seldom welcome. In 1998, Richardson was the first Cabinet-level official to visit Afghanistan in 24 years. He went to persuade Taliban leaders to expel Osama Bin Laden. But Richardson is no softie. Shortly after Richardson’s Afghan visit, the Al Qaeda chief threatened to kill Richardson. That sentiment is mutual, with Richardson responding he’d try to “kill him first.”

Appointing Richardson is not without problems, especially for the ascetic Obama administration. It has previously been suggested that Governor Richardson suffers from some of Bill Clinton’s weaknesses. Nor is Richardson known to be a particularly well-organised manager and would need a details-oriented deputy.

But neither problem is insurmountable and would be outweighed by the benefits of having Richardson at State, and Clinton at the Pentagon America’s three faces to world would be those of an African American president, a Hispanic diplomat-negotiator and a hawkish female Pentagon chief. Good luck portraying the U.S as on a crusade.


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