The big news from the Obama transition was the announcement of the new “national security team.” But that’s not the big story. The big story is how Hillary Clinton - as the next secretary of state - will impact on the bureaucratic struggles over U.S. foreign policy and national security affairs in Washington.
The most obvious tension (and over her selection itself) would have already happened with Vice President Joe Biden - who fancies himself a foreign policy guru - and who would have surely urged President-elect Obama to name a much weaker secretary of state. In fact, Mr. Biden was betrayed by the Clinton choice: After all, Mr. Biden was picked to shore up Mr. Obama’s deservedly “rookie” foreign policy image, and was expecting to have a significant foreign policy role, a la Dick Cheney - but not now, not ever.
Do you think Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intends to pay any attention to what Vice President Joe Biden thinks? Nope, she doesn’t work for Mr. Biden and will make that clear to him if it becomes necessary. So, like Al Gore before him, expect Mr. Biden to be marginalized - totally - in foreign policy and national security matters. However, and for most conservatives - who shuddered at the thought of Mr. Biden’s (and Mr. Gore’s) influence - this will be regarded as a very good thing. Nevertheless - and an interesting “indicator” to watch from here on out - will be the nature and extent of Mr. Biden’s official foreign visits, which will be jealously monitored by the Clinton State Department. He will go to official state funerals, however.
Appointing Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state also weakens the traditional National Security Council structure - and the personal stature of the national security adviser. The proof? In the past, when the stronger and “better connected” personality is at State (or Defense, as with Donald Rumsfeld), a much weaker personal status has resulted for the national security adviser. Remember the Kissinger move to State? He took his influence and access with him. It was consistent with this reality for the appointment of a career military officer - James Jones - as the national security adviser. Gen. Jones may already know not to “mess with” Hillary Clinton when it comes to policy matters - if he doesn’t, he has a very tough time in store. His job was - and is - to be the token Democratic (and resident intellectual) senior military officer, and Mrs. Clinton will not have much of anything to do with him: She will regard him as a policy “coordinator” only.
In this respect, and very significant in Mrs. Clinton’s coup, is the recent report that Hillary will have “direct access” to the president. Translation: this is “official notice” that the new secretary of state plans to bureaucratically ignore the NSC and the national security adviser. There will be few, if any, White House (read Joe Biden) people - other than the president - with any influence over Mrs. Clinton. That will occur only when Gen. Jones and/or Mr. Biden convince the president to “tell Clinton something” - that simply won’t happen very often, if ever.
We can also expect to soon see deputy secretaries (or even lower) at the NSC “principals” meetings, heretofore attended personally by the secretaries of state and defense. After all, you don’t think Mrs. Clinton will attend meetings called by some - i.e., Gen. Jones - White House staffer? And you don’t expect to see the defense secretary attending NSC meetings that Mrs. Clinton only sends a deputy to, do you? As a result, Hillary will only show up at meetings chaired by her president.
The bottom line: If she couldn’t be president, you can be sure Mrs. Clinton wanted to be secretary of state, and further, that she will not regard it as a demotion from being first lady when she had direct access to -and influence on - the president, albeit of a different kind.
To complete the Clinton foreign policy coup, look for a politically weaker (and nominal Republican) figure for the longer term at the Pentagon. My guess for the defense secretary (after the interim carry over of Robert Gates) is Colin Powell, the ultimate Washington policy-waffler, who endorsed Mr. Obama after it was obvious to most that Mr. Obama would win. So, while connected Democrats (e.g., Mrs. Clinton) clearly won’t trust Mr. Powell - because he might turn on them - they may need him at Defense to moderate its policy influence.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gates’ interim job at Defense - primarily - will be to finish taking the blame for the Bush failure in Iraq.
What about the influence of the outgoing secretary at State? Condoleezza Rice is an academic, and, shares more with Madeleine Albright than most might first think. Expect to see both Miss Rice and Mrs. Albright serving as functional advisers to Mrs. Clinton; this would be a very smart move on Mrs. Clinton’s part, and allow her to deflect - politically - away from policy decisions that turned out badly for her.
Perhaps ironically, Miss Rice had already started the transformation of U.S. foreign policy back to its more traditional - and liberal - views. And, while she wasn’t the pushover Colin Powell was for the softer institutional State line on issues, she was at odds with most everything the Rumsfeld Defense Department had to say. Recall also that after Mr. Rumsfeld resigned, there was the installation of Mr. Gates, a perceptively much weaker defense secretary (at least when compared to Mr. Rumsfeld) and this has played out to be the “end game” for the Bush second term, as far as national security policies are concerned.
As a result of these dynamics, the transition at State from Miss Rice to Mrs. Clinton will be quite subtle - perhaps even seamless. However, in the coming years we can expect to see much more “internationalism,” with regard to a whole range of foreign and national security policy issues - and Miss Rice has clearly set the stage for this.
What external events could alter the near-term directions for our national security and foreign policy?
— Another terrorist attack at home.
— A militarily belligerent Iran or North Korea.
— A militarily belligerent Russia - particularly against new NATO (and former Warsaw Pact) members.
Unfortunately, any or all of these events are likely - especially during the first year of the new administration.
Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, in Arlington, Va. He held a series of senior national security policy positions.