My Choice for Secretary State (Hint: It's Not Susan Rice or John Kerry)

By Mike Dorf

Should Susan Rice or John Kerry be named Secretary of State?  How about a bipartisan move like naming soon-to-be-former Indiana (R) Senator Dick Lugar?  Or a bold move, like naming Bill Clinton?  Momentarily I'll briefly explain why none of these picks is ideal.  Before coming to my choice for the job, I'd like to suggest that the naming of a Secretary of State is a good opportunity to think about foreign policy goals.

1) Perhaps the best reason for President Obama to follow through on his apparent plan to name Susan Rice to the post is the preposterousness of the case against her.  The Republican/FoxNews attempt to generate a scandal from the fact that Rice described the attack on the Benghazi embassy as the product of a spontaneous uprising rather than a planned terrorist attack is, well, preposterous.  The only possible sense any of this supposed scandal makes is that Rice, carrying water for Obama, sought to minimize a terrorist attack during the election season, so as to make Obama's foreign policy record look better than it is.  According to this story line, had the Administration admitted the role of terrorists in Libya, then the Libyan intervention would not look so good, and that would count against Obama.  But the scale is all wrong for a scandal--giving a somewhat incomplete characterization of a past attack on a news talk show to make the record look slightly better than it is.  At least the scale is all wrong compared to the sorts of dissembling by the Bush Administration: Where were the complaints from Republican Senators and their media backers when, you know, the Administration systematically inflated the risk that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD's and was working with al Qaeda in order to drum up support for war?  The objection to Rice is so outrageous coming from this collection of hypocrites that one can almost understand why the President would want to stick with her as a way of calling them on it.  But as good as it might feel to use the nominating process to call Senate Republicans and their media lackeys hypocrites, that's not exactly a qualification for Rice.  She may well be highly qualified.  It's just that at this point her potential nomination is not about that.

2) The most obvious argument against John Kerry is the flipside of the argument for Rice.  Senate Republicans want him to be Secretary of State, partly because they know and like him, but one suspects that they'd also like to see Scott Brown get a shot at another partial term as a Senator.  That's a reason for Democrats not to play along.  To be sure, Kerry certainly knows a lot about foreign policy and thus appears to be well qualified on the merits.  But he's also John Kerry.  I realize that 2004 was a long time ago but my recollection of that distant time is that he proved to be a bit of a pompous windbag.  That didn't stop me and millions of others from voting for him, but I'm not sure that it makes him an ideal diplomat.

3) The idea of Bill Clinton as Secretary of State is indeed intriguing.  Part of Hillary Clinton's success as SoS has been the fact that she began with her own international reputation and credibility.  That would obviously be true of Bill Clinton too.  I just don't see this as a serious suggestion.  Sure, John Quincy Adams went to the House after being President and William Howard Taft became Chief Justice after being President.  But those were both moves to a different branch, and the JQA move has been widely regarded as anomalous.  Taking on the role of Secretary of State would be more like a demotion, albeit a demotion to a very good job.  Maybe Clinton wouldn't be bothered by that but I tend to think that at this point in his life he's just not interested in the sort of grueling schedule that the job entails.  And somewhere, someone in the Obama Administration has to be worried about even the possibility of a sex scandal becoming an international incident.

So who's my candidate?  Before getting there, it's probably useful to think about what the foreign policy agenda of the U.S. should be.  During his first term, much of the Obama foreign policy was focused on undoing the big mistake of his predecessor (the Iraq War)--a policy that Obama pursued with mixed results.  Yes, he successfully extricated us from Iraq, which was very important, but he seems to have engaged in some magical thinking along the following lines: The Iraq War was a disaster in its own right but it was also harmful because it diverted U.S. military resources and attention from the fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas.  Thus, the Iraq drawdown needs to be accompanied by at least a temporary buildup in Afghanistan and a ramping up of global efforts to target al Qaeda.  I say this is magical thinking because the Obama Administration appeared to think that by getting out of Iraq, it would become 2003 again in Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, the targeting of al Qaeda had the notable success of killing Osama bin Laden, but a good argument can be made that it has been counterproductive--that drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have created more anti-U.S. militants than they have killed.

Going forward, it's clear that we will be mostly out of Afghanistan relatively soon.  Meanwhile, I am very skeptical of a Middle East/South Asia policy that makes hunting down militants its central component.  Early in his first term, Obama's Cairo speech showed that he understands the need for a political as well as a military strategy, but events have more or less overtaken us.  The Obama policy now comes down to this: target al Qaeda and al Qaeda-ish militants for killing worldwide; provide military assistance on a humanitarian or pro-democratic basis opportunistically where the downside risk does not appear to be too high (e.g., Libya but not Syria); and support Israel in the UN and in public diplomacy with respect to Iran, Hamas, etc., with the hope of wielding some moderating influence on the Israeli government with respect to military policy and perhaps settlements.  To my mind, that is a rational policy, which makes it better than the alternative on offer from the neocon right, but it lacks vision for a substantially better future.

I would look for a Secretary of State with some commitment to making progress towards resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  There are many answers to the question "why do they hate us?".  Because we supported brutal dictators who ruled over them for decades.  Because we repeatedly intervened militarily.  And yes, to some extent, because of our freedom, or to put that point in only slightly less tendentious terms, because of a "clash of civilizations."  But there remains no better way to mobilize public opinion and militants against the United States than to note our support for the hardest of lines that Israel takes with the Palestinians.

I say that as someone whose own views on the conflict are more or less the same as the views routinely expressed on the editorial page of Haaretz.  In that respect, I'm probably much more representative of American Jewish public opinion than is, say, Sheldon Adelson, a fact that ought to give American politicians greater room to play the role of honest broker than they seem to want to play.  Actual progress towards a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict would go immeasurably farther towards enhancing American national security than thousands of drone strikes.

American foreign policy cannot resolve all of the conflicts in the Middle East, much less the world.  Indeed, I would hope that an important element of American foreign policy ought to be to disengage us from conflicts that are so twisted that we cannot sensibly identify whom to support and whom to oppose.  Ramping down U.S. involvement in such conflicts would lead to a virtuous cycle in which our disengagement would in turn mean that there are fewer people who take aim at America.

Of course, we also face diplomatic challenges in other regions and along other dimensions.  How to manage the rise of China as a great power?  How to take coordinated international action on climate change and other environmental issues?  How to deal with rogue states?  All of these will be easier in a future in which the fear of terrorism no longer leads the U.S. to spend 5% of GDP on the military.  It's already irrational, as most of that spending is not targeted at terrorism, but since the end of the Cold War, the confrontation with radical Islam has probably been the single most important psychological factor in generating support for high levels of military spending.

So, is there someone who could do the SoS job that I've described?  Maybe not, but if I could name someone Secretary of State, it would be Rob Malley.  As his most recent essay in the NY Review of Books (co-authored with Hussein Agha), illustrates, no American understands the Middle East better than Malley.  He is hardly an idealistic dreamer but his views offer some modest hope for well-informed engagement that aims at the kind of American disengagement described above, as nicely underscored by his recent appearance on Fresh Air.  (Full disclosure: I know Malley from our time together in law school and as Supreme Court clerks.  He has the right temperament and character for the job too.  I have no idea whether he's interested or politically viable in the Senate.)