Out of Control Policy Blog

Obama's Cabinet: State

Reason Foundation's Shikha Dalmia looks at Obama's possible picks for Secretary of State with a critical eye and gives an analysis of the best and worst choices he could make:

America's foreign policy has been on steroids for quite some time. The Bush administration has embraced what is tantamount to the precautionary principle on the war on terror, believing that terrorism poses such a mortal threat to the civilized world that no effort, no cost, is too great to eradicate it. Obama's first priority ought to be to undo the damage caused by this line of thinking and extricate America first from Iraq and, at some point, Afghanistan as well. Hard withdrawal deadlines might not be feasible - but at least he ought to look for exit strategies instead of reasons for staying indefinitely. Equally important, he should resist the temptation to open more fronts in this war - for example in Pakistan - just to prove his security bona fides.

More fundamentally, Obama needs to radically rethink America's approach to terrorism, taking it off a war-footing and toward some kind of a containment strategy that relies on aggressive diplomacy and alliance-building of the sort that was used to defeat communism. (And he needs to get off his silly high-horse of capturing Osama bin Laden!)

But terrorism is not the only area where the U.S. has pursued a hyper-active foreign policy. Under the Clinton administration, the U.S. had taken something of a "white man's burden" approach, believing that the world has to be saved from itself through U.S.-led humanitarian wars such as in the Balkans. Thus Obama will face plenty of calls from the liberal left to intervene in all kinds of conflagrations such as the genocide in Darfur.

He needs a Secretary of State who will restore humility and realism to American foreign policy by resisting both right-wing hawks and left-wing idealists. Someone who understands that the world is rife with both threats and problems and America cannot willy-nilly intervene in all of them without courting disaster for itself and its intended beneficiaries.

The hands-down best person for the job is Sen. Chuck Hagel - a Nebraska Republican who has become a major critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy after initially voting for the war. He has the right stature, temperament, depth of knowledge and - above all - positions for the job. He is a former Vietnam War veteran who appreciates both the possibilities - and limits - of U.S. power. He is not averse to using this power if there is some vital national interest at stake. However, he also understands the pitfalls of nation-building for security or humanitarian purposes. "The success of our policies and efforts will depend not only on the extent of our power, the strength of our purpose, and cohesion of regional alliances, but also by an appreciation of great power limits," he recently noted.

Hagel understands how making the war on terror the central organizing principle in America's dealings with other countries has stymied progress on other important issues and will help restore balance to its foreign policy. He believes in using negotiation and diplomacy as much as possible, even with adversaries - something that seems to be very much in keeping with Obama's own instincts. His outspoken opposition to the Bush administration's arrogance and incompetence would please Obama's liberal constituency, while earning Obama points for bi-partisanship.

The second-tier candidates for the job would include Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson - both Democrats. Kerry, who would be less good, voted for the Iraq war but seems to have had a genuine change of heart and has admitted quite openly that he made a mistake. He certainly has the experience for the job, having served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for eons. By and large, he supports humanitarian military interventions. But setting that aside, his main problem is his lack of inner firmness. His constant waffling makes it hard to predict what kind of policies he will eventually pursue as Secretary of State. He is an ardent multilateralist, but in the service of what objectives? His foreign policy writings consist of a litany of actionable items - enhancing national security, stopping global warming, preventing genocide - but little by way of principles to prioritize them.

Governor Richardson, who describes himself as a pro-growth Democrat, also has the resume for the job, having served as America's United Nations ambassador. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the release of American servicemen and political prisoners in North Korea, Iraq and Cuba. He is a better candidate than Kerry because he takes clearer positions. He believes that the key to tackling terrorism (and other threats) in a globalized world lies in forging alliances with countries who are similarly threatened, rather than unilaterally issuing ultimatums to uncooperative regimes. America needs to be a "leader rather than a lone ranger," he notes. He has a reputation for being a tough negotiator, but very much believes in the power of good-faith negotiation over bluster in dealing with adversaries. He has been intimately involved in forging a ceasefire in Darfur and wants the U.S. to take a leading role in ending the genocide there - but not necessarily through unilateral military action.

Another second-tier candidate would be Republican Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana. He represents a sensible middle-ground on foreign policy, believing, like Richardson, that the U.S. needs to actively engage the world to deal with threats rather than topple settled regimes. He initially supported the Iraq war but then severely criticized its conduct. He has led efforts to slash global stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. His big success was that he helped secure funding in Congress for the decommissioning of these weapons in former Soviet Union countries. He should be particularly attractive to Obama given that he broke ranks with John McCain and endorsed Obama's foreign policy approach of talking to foreign leaders, even enemies.

The people whom Obama should avoid at all costs are former Clintonites Tony Lake, Susan Rice, Richard Holbrooke and - above all - Sen. Hillary Clinton. Lake and Rice are ardent advocates of humanitarian interventions, especially those that seem to serve no U.S. interest. They co-authored a column two years ago, issuing a call to arms for the U.S. to march into Darfur with or without the UN's cooperation. "History demonstrates that there is one language Khartoum understands: the credible threat or use of force," they intoned.

Both Clinton and Holbrooke, who is best known for having negotiated the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, supported war in Iraq on the same humanitarian grounds that they supported Kosovo. They both advocate a liberal version of the neo-conservative national greatness foreign policy, believing in a hegemonic America that uses its power to right the wrongs in the world. Hillary, even more than Holbrooke, appears to have influenced President Clinton's decision to bomb Kosovo in 1999. Apparently, when Clinton worried of unintended side effects of intervention, Hillary persisted, insisting that the risk of inaction was greater than the risk of action - precisely the argument that was deployed to justify the Iraq war three years later.

Appointing any of them would indicate not an end to American hyper-interventionism, but its reinvention under a different guise.

Shikha Dalmia's picks for the Secretaries of Education, Transportation, and Treasury are here.

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