Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is finding that her job description is dissolving under her feet, leaving her with only a vestige of the power she must have thought she acquired when she signed on to be President Obama's chief Cabinet officer.
Since her designation:
• Vice President Biden has moved vigorously to stake out foreign policy as his turf. His visit to Afghanistan, right before the Inauguration, could not but send a signal to Hillary that he would conduct foreign policy in the new administration, leaving Hillary in the role of backup.
• Richard Holbrooke, the former Balkan negotiator and U.N. ambassador, has been named special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He insisted on direct access to the president, a privilege he was denied during much of the Clinton years.
• Former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), negotiator of the Irish Peace Accords, was appointed to be the administration's point man on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
• Samantha Powers, Obama's former campaign aide, who once called Hillary a "monster," has been appointed to the National Security Council (NSC) as director of "multilateral affairs."
• Gen. James L. Jones, Obama's new national security adviser, has announced an expansion of the membership and role of the NSC. He pledges to eliminate "back channels" to the president and wants to grow the NSC's role to accommodate the "dramatically different" challenges of the current world situation.
• Susan Rice, Obama's new United Nations ambassador, insisted upon and got Cabinet rank for her portfolio, and she will presumably also have the same kind of access to Obama that she had as his chief foreign policy adviser during the campaign.
So where does all this leave Secretary of State Clinton?
While sympathy for Mrs. Clinton is outside the normal fare of these columns, one cannot help but feel that she is surrounded by people who are, at best, strangers and, at worst, enemies. The competition that has historically occupied secretaries of State and national security advisers seems poised to ratchet up to a new level in the current administration.
Hillary's essential problem is that she is an outsider in the current mix. She was the adversary in the campaign, and Rice and Powers -- at the very least -- know it well, having helped to run the campaign that dethroned her. Can they -- and she -- be devoid of bitterness or at least of normal human trepidation? Not very likely.
The fact is that the power of the secretary of State is not statutory, nor does it flow from the prestige of the post's occupant. Former Gen. Al Haig, once supreme commander of NATO and chief of staff to President Nixon, found that out when he was undercut as secretary by the White House troika of Mike Deaver, James Baker and Ed Meese. Bill Rogers, Eisenhower's attorney general and Nixon's California confidant, found himself on the outs from the moment he became secretary of State, with Henry Kissinger soaking up all the power through his direct access to Nixon as national security adviser.
The power of the secretary of State flows directly from the president. But Hillary does not have the inside track with Obama. Rice and Powers, close advisers in the campaign, and Gen. Jones -- whose office is in the White House -- all may have superior access. Holbrooke and Mitchell will have more immediate information about the world's trouble spots.
So what is Hillary's mandate? Of what is she secretary of State? If you take the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan out of the equation, what is left? One would have to assume that the old North Korea hands in the government would monopolize that theater of action. What, precisely, is it that Hillary is to do? The question lingers.
And for this she gave up a Senate seat?