Not in recent memory has the office of secretary of state been occupied by a figure as potentially powerful as Hillary Clinton.
The former first lady and presumptive future secretary of state not only almost won the Democratic nomination, but might well in the next election challenge President Barack Obama, the man she will be serving. Mrs. Clinton has inched out other ambitious candidates - like Sen. John Kerry - for the post and reportedly she intends to accept. Her appointment will certainly be one of the most intriguing developments in the run-up to the new administration.
Many commentators here and abroad have offered their views, speculating on this surprising development: Mr. Obama is assembling a team of rivals, like Abraham Lincoln, keeping his enemies and rivals close to prevent any challenges. Another version of the same notion suggests that Mr. Obama is trying to unite the Democratic Party after a venomously divisive primary battle. Some have speculated that Mrs. Clinton might want to accept in order to undermine Mr. Obama from Foggy Bottom. Why else would she abandon a very good job as senator from New York with its attractive powerbase for her next run for the White House?
One element of Mr. Obama’s choosing the job of secretary of state (as opposed to attorney general, for instance) for Mrs. Clinton is the female factor. Unless something happens to change her mind over Thanksgiving, Mrs. Clinton will become the third female secretary of state of the United States, interrupted only by the male interregnum of Colin Powell. Though one likes to see progress for female leadership in the right context, you have to ask yourself if this means that the U.S. State Department has become more or less prestigious and powerful in recent years.
The answer is certainly negative.
Mrs. Clinton may not have any obvious credentials that would make this a natural fit, beyond claiming to her credit her speech on women’s rights in Beijing, and her alleged role in the Northern Ireland peace negotiations, the latter of which is very much in dispute. But today, foreign policy is very much set in the White House by the president himself. With the aid of Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, currently chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Obama will certainly want to run foreign policy himself. Gen. Jim Jones, former NATO supreme commander is being mentioned as one candidate for national security advisor, which would make the National Security Council a major power center.
Foreign policy has also increasingly been conducted by the Pentagon, particularly in the Rumsfeld era. Its regional combatant commands are taking on intergovernmental coordinating functions that previously have been housed in the State Department and the embassies. In terms of public diplomacy strategy and outreach, the Pentagon has moved aggressively and strategically to occupy the turf left open by State in recent times.
The sprawling State Department with its myriad functions, entrenched bureaucracy and overstretched staff, is a manager’s nightmare. But it is actually often not where the foreign policy of the United States is formulated today. Instead, the secretary of state either gets bogged down in managerial functions (Powell model) or travels the world, rarely to be seen in Washington (Condoleezza Rice model). Some secretaries of state have indeed been powerful, Henry Kissinger or James Baker III for instance. But of both it must be said that they are particularly smooth operators.
All this suggests that the State Department is almost a symbolic offering, one that Mr. Obama can afford in order to salve the wounded Clinton pride. Had he offered her the job of secretary of defense, it would have been truly revolutionary. Or one of the domestic posts from which she could set policy.
But Mr. Obama may well have miscalculated. Mrs. Clinton is accepting a post that has a large symbolic content, but she is definitely a force to be reckoned with. (And she has a spouse capable of still unimagined mischief.) Anyone willing to endure what Mrs. Clinton has endured in order to get to the Oval Office, particularly the public humiliation of the Monica Lewinsky affair, is not likely to be sidetracked in her quest.
How she will maneuver from the vantage point of the State Department will be positively riveting to watch.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.