The idea is to find the right match. Soul mates or perhaps a team of rivals? If only there were an eHarmony for presidential transitions, Thomas Jefferson might get matched with Condoleezza Rice: "Widower, nation's first SoS, seeks SBF, preferably also former SoS, for 'diplomatic' liaison at country estate. Turn-ons include long trips to France; turn-offs include 'preemptive' war and Sudoku."
Well, maybe not…
But somewhere between the respective talents of our first and latest secretaries of state lies the key to understanding the logic of the Obama foreign policy team. On one hand, the author of the Declaration of Independence might have been a bit overqualified, and on the other, Condi, the Russian-speaking Cold War theorist might have been just a tad overmatched by Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Obama's biggest problem regarding diplomacy is that he'll always be sending the second-best person to do the job. Any other president would want to send Obama as a special envoy to smooth things out in India and Pakistan after the Mumbai siege because if you combine Jay-Z's world-beating, New Jack CEO vibe with Bill Clinton's Oxford-tinged, "This-kebab-is-delicious!" populism, you have Obama's worldwide appeal wrapped up in a sepia-toned nutshell.
Obama can't be everywhere at once. He's bringing in a team that has the chops to get the job done without his day-to-day micromanagement: Sen. Hillary Clinton at State; Obama campaign adviser and former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Dr. Susan Rice as U.N. Ambassador; Bush holdover Sec. Robert Gates at Defense, and former U.S. Marine Corps Commandant and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Gen. Jim Jones in the White House as national security adviser. Here's why it could work:
Foreign policy mavens Tom Friedman and David Ignatius don't love it. They anticipate cognitive dissonance between Clinton, the consummate insider, and Obama, the wunderkind. Ignatius warns against "subcontracting" Obama's agenda to Clinton, and Friedman points out that foreign leaders can see daylight between the views of the president and the secretary of state "from 1,000 miles away"—valid points, to be sure.
But if one thing was demonstrated in 2008, it is that Obama is no rookie when it comes to dealing with foreign leaders. And skeptics might reflect on the events of 2002, when then Secretary of State Colin Powell—with years of experience and a war hero's reservoir of goodwill—wound up behind a microphone at the U.N. General Assembly, pitching the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld war plan with a bootleg PowerPoint presentation. The lesson, then and now, is that a strong president will make the final call, even when the secretary of state has an independent political platform.
Five of the first eight presidents were secretaries of state. If Clinton wants to run for president in 2016, it's as good a résumé item as any for her. The hitch is that she's won't even be the second woman to hold the post, so there's no historic "first" feather for her cap. She's going to have to get things done, not just hype her own brand, if she wants to gain anything from her tenure at Foggy Bottom. And that's how it fits together for Obama. She advances her own cause by advancing his.
The plan to leave Gates at the Department of Defense has probably been brewing for a while—Obama always knew he'd have to have a Republican somewhere in his Cabinet—and anyone who managed to tidy up some of Don "Kickin' it with Saddam" Rumsfeld's mess in Iraq might wind up being useful for a couple more years.
Retaining Gates sends a message to the military brass that Obama doesn't plan to tinker with things that aren't broken and signals that policy changes don't always require personnel changes. Hopefully, Obama will set things back to how they're supposed to be—presidents set policy and the pros at the Pentagon figure out the best way to carry it out.
Susan Rice, in terms of credentials and personal relationship with Obama is roughly the equivalent of outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—well-connected bureaucrats without political constituencies of their own. We'd have been better off if President Clinton had left Albright as his Ambassador to the U.N., and if President Bush had appointed Condi Rice as his, rather than throwing her into the deep end as national security adviser and secretary of state. Obama was right to check his personal comfort level at the door and stash Rice at the U.N. for now. If Clinton can't get things done by 2012, Rice will be ready for a call up to the bigs.
" Kool Aide "
While it's harder for a layman to get a feel for what Gen. Jim Jones will be like as national security adviser, that's probably a good thing. We've had too many famous national security advisers in recent years, writing memoirs and snitching on former colleagues. It seems like these days no one can be counted on to come in, collect a paycheck and quietly pave the way in the developing world for Taco Bell, Windows Vista and Sasha Fierce. National security adviser is the kind of position that should be feared silently, like Al Neri or Chris Partlow. With Jones, we may just have our man. Don't sleep on this guy…literally.
Obama won't be playing Stratego or Risk when January 20, 2009 rolls around. The list of global crises facing the incoming administration is daunting—terrorism, rogue nukes, pirates on the high seas (really—pirates). But when you take Obama's A-list foreign policy/national defense team, throw in former Foreign Relations Committee Chair and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, current Foreign Relations Committee Chair Sen. John Kerry and his quad-lingual, white "African-American" wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Obama might just be in a situation where he can delegate and still cover a lot of ground. If Rice and the Kerrys cover sub-Saharan Africa, Biden covers the former Soviet bloc, Gates ties things up in Iraq, President Obama himself holds down "South Central" (the Tehran-Kabul-Islamabad-New Delhi circuit), Jones covers Israel and the Arab world, and former Vice President Al Gore takes care of Mother Earth, then that would leave, roughly, France, for Hillary Clinton to take care of, and she'll do just fine.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.