President-elect Obama reveals much by nominating Senator Clinton to be his secretary of state, and Senator Clinton reveals much by accepting. Mr. Obama seeks to keep his chief political rival under his direct command, but in doing so he possibly makes her a more potent adversary. This purely political appointment was not the best choice for American foreign policy, and it is a risky one for his administration.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama ran on a platform of “change,” and throughout the primaries he criticized Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy positions on a variety of issues. They clashed on the Iraq War, invading friendly countries, and meeting without preconditions with foreign tyrants.
During this transition period, “change” looks a lot like the 1990s. Many on the left are increasingly critical regarding the hordes of Clinton personnel refilling the corridors of power.
But many were shocked at Mr. Obama’s choice of Mrs. Clinton to fill presumably the top cabinet position. The secretary of state is an important leader during quiet times, but during perilous times who that leader is becomes critical. In the event of a catastrophic attack on Washington, DC, the secretary of state is the cabinet officer in the line of succession to the presidency.
The rest of Mr. Obama’s national security team makes perfect sense. Robert Gates will stay on as defense secretary, despite the blogosphere’s howling over President-elect Obama retaining someone they label a war criminal. Also, General James Jones is perfectly qualified to serve as national security advisor.
Compared with those two appointments, Mrs. Clinton’s nomination sticks out as an oddity. Having served eight years in the Senate, and being marginally involved in her husband’s White House for eight years before that, Mrs. Clinton is qualified for the office, but just barely. She is strong, educated, intelligent and disciplined, but lacks the depth of experience typical for Foggy Bottom.
If President-elect Obama wanted a first-tier choice, he could have offered it to someone like Senator Richard Lugar. Their friendship is almost legendary. The former chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee is 76 years old, and secretary of state would have been a perfect fit for such a distinguished senior statesman.
Senator Lugar’s nomination would have also sent a powerful message, both at home and abroad. He is a moderate Republican, respected on both sides of the aisle, whose experience as a mayor would have helped him tame the beast known as the Department of State. If Mr. Obama truly wanted a post-partisan administration, Mr. Lugar would be perfect.
Perhaps, selecting a Republican for this top cabinet post is a bridge too far for Mr. Obama.