Obama’s Cabinet: Part Two

Best and worst candidates for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Attorney General

This is part two in a series. Part one, with picks for Treasury, Education and Transportation, is available here. I’ve offered a list of three sets of candidates for the major cabinet appointments. One: a list of excellent picks which includes people – regardless of their party affiliation – who have demonstrated a commitment to containing the size and scope of government and exploring market-oriented, liberty-enhancing solutions to public policy problems. Two: a list of good picks which includes mainly Democrats – but occasionally Republicans and others – who are open-minded about market-based ideas and won’t automatically use the government to advance a partisan agenda. Three: a list of ugly picks which includes Big Government types who have either little interest in or harbor open hostility toward free markets and have no compunctions about growing government. They would use their office to fulfill ideological goals or cater to special interests – as opposed to honestly exploring the most workable solutions.

More picks from the first two categories will reflect that President-elect Obama intends to govern – as he promised – as a post-partisan liberal as opposed to an extreme liberal. A cabinet heavily laden from the third list will signal the opposite.

Secretary of State

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.

Secretary of Defense

The proper role of the military in a country founded on the principles of limited government is to protect it from direct threats – not serve as a tool of larger foreign policy objectives. However, America’s defense and foreign policy became hopelessly entangled after World War II when America turned itself into the policeman of the world and took on the security obligations of its NATO allies in Europe and other countries in Asia. Whatever the justification for this during the Cold War, there is none now – and it is time to demilitarize American foreign policy.

To be sure, America must take steps to counter Islamic terrorism, but military intervention is not necessarily the best way to do so. Better would be to forge more strategic alliances and beef up intelligence gathering and special operations, none of which is as costly as maintaining a massive ground force. Thus, so long as America stays away from inappropriate humanitarian and other interventions and makes a commitment to winding down operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it could potentially slash the $750 billion or so it has been spending on defense every year, a figure that represents more than what the rest of the world spends combined.

It is up to the president, as commander-in-chief, to set the defense policy of America. However, it will be imperative for Obama to hire as his Defense Secretary someone who is: attuned to the security implications of the new geopolitical realities; supportive of a less grandiose foreign policy agenda; and open to major defense reforms, including cuts in forces.

An outstanding recruit for this job would be Lawrence Korb, Assistant Secretary for Defense in the Reagan administration, who is now a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank. From the outset, he has been an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq and has advocated strategies for withdrawal. He believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union made the world less hostile to America since there are no “peer competitors” with military capabilities close to ours. Therefore, the United States no longer has any vital national interest in subsidizing the defense of its NATO and Asian allies, who should be asked to shoulder more of their own defense burden.

America’s defense capabilities have been historically predicated on the assumption that the U.S. should be able to fight two major wars simultaneously. Korb believes that America no longer needs to prepare for that eventuality, and, therefore, could make do with fewer active divisions. Since he has administered many defense budgets, he knows where to eliminate wasteful Pentagon spending. He understands that terrorism can’t be fought by putting more boots on the ground and ships in the sea. “What you need is good intelligence to stop terrorism before it starts,” he insists. He favors U.S. participation in peace-keeping forces in Darfur and Rwanda, although it is unclear whether he would back unilateral, US military action.

Also suitable would be Bob Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, who has clocked many years in various intelligence and defense agencies. He gets high marks from both Republicans and Democrats – including Obama himself – for stabilizing Iraq. He is low-key, learned and loyal and would be a sober supporter of the president’s defense policy. He is an able manager and reform-oriented, although he is shrewd enough to know, unlike his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, that lasting reform can’t be pushed top-down – you have to get buy-in from below. He has firmly discouraged the idea of U.S. airstrikes against Iran. “The last thing the Middle East needs now is another war,” he has said. “We have to keep all options on the table,” he believes. “But if Iraq has shown us anything, it’s the unpredictability of war. Once a conflict starts, the statesmen lose control.” He is unlikely to be an enthusiastic backer of humanitarian wars. And last year, he argued before the Association of U.S. Army for transforming America’s military capabilities away from large-scale combat against enemies of comparable strength toward “asymmetric warfare,” especially counterinsurgency operations. To the army hierarchy, which is dominated by tank and infantry officers who cut their teeth – and still stack their budgets – on old-style combat, it amounted to a rebel cry, as the New York Times described.

Also acceptable — but not great — would be Rhode Island Democrat Sen. Jack Reed, a West Point graduate and a veteran. He voted against the resolution authorizing force against Iraq and was a sharp critic of Bush’s conduct of the war – before Gates took over. He is smart, learned, thoughtful and widely respected. However, he seems to have classic Democratic instincts about humanitarian interventions, voting in favor of air-strikes in Kosovo. He led the effort in Congress to increase the size of the armed forces, a likely indication that he wouldn’t push for reorganizing them. However, he gets major points for voting to require on-budget funding for Iraq – and ending the scandalous practice of emergency funding.

In the same league as Reed would be Richard Danzig, Secretary of Navy under Bill Clinton. He has years of experience in the nuts-and-bolts of Pentagon management that would be invaluable in reorganizing the defense forces. His big virtue is that he takes a realistic approach to dealing with the terrorism, pointing out that the West cannot completely eliminate the threat. It will have to look for ways to contain and pre-empt individual terrorist groups and plots rather than use the military to topple regimes. However, he seems to have a rather touchy-feely streak in him. A dabbler in poetry, he believes that what’s missing in our Iraq strategy is a cultural component. He wants to expand the State Department’s foreign-service wing for stints in Iraq to do language and cultural training.

In the to-be-avoided category are General Wesley Clark and former Virginia governor and senator, Chuck Robb. Clark, who commanded the NATO alliance forces during the Kosovo conflict, has sensibly cautioned against interpreting the collapse of the Soviet Union as an invitation to deal with security threats through military assertiveness. He notes that it took four years of patient engagement to bring down the Iron Curtain. However, as a presidential candidate, he was unable to take a clear position on whether he would have supported or opposed the Iraq War resolution – something that speaks to either political calculation or a lack of clarity on the issues, neither of which would be good qualities in a defense secretary. More to the point, as a former general, there is a real danger that he would bring too much of an insider’s perspective to the job that would stymie efforts to reorganize the armed forces, especially since he hasn’t said much to suggest that this would be a major priority for him in the first place.

Robb, who served on the Iraq Study Group, is a hawkish Democrat who is a champion of strong national defense. He is solid on fiscal issues and his fellow Democrats removed him from the Budget Committee when he demanded deeper cuts in federal spending. However, he believes that the U.S. needs to begin building up military assets in the Middle East to contain a backlash should a military strike be necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This is a position at odds with the progressive internationalism that he otherwise favors and one that the country can ill-afford right now.

U.S. Attorney General – Department of Justice

All wars expand the power of government – and so it’s been with the “war on terrorism.”

After the 9/11 attacks, Congress hastily passed the ill-conceived Patriot Act that effectively gutted privacy, due process and other rights. It gave federal authorities powerful new tools to: conduct warrant less wiretapping; search homes without immediately informing homeowners under the notorious “sneak and peek” provisions; and seize customers’ rental or bank records without proper court orders simply by issuing National Security Letters to businesses.

The Bush administration has also claimed extraordinary powers in how it treats foreign prisoners, seeking to indefinitely detain anyone, even a US citizen, captured overseas without access to attorneys or courts. The Supreme Court repudiated the administration’s position, first in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and then in Boumediene v. Bush, noting that the administration cannot unilaterally strip these so-called enemy combatants of their habeas corpus rights – the right to be shown the evidence against them.

But if the Bush administration’s war on terrorism has shredded civil liberties, its escalation of the war on drugs has shredded federalism. It has stepped-up raids on medical marijuana dispensaries – in states where they are legal. And it has redoubled efforts to obtain mandatory minimum sentences in drug-related cases, forcing judges to put away for years even non-violent drug offenders. More people are being incarcerated for drug offenses than for all violent crimes combined – without making any appreciable difference in the supply or use of drugs. Nor is the crackdown on drugs the only instance where Bush has tried to prosecute victimless crimes. In a stunning move, he created a special task force to prosecute hard-porn makers marketing products featuring adults for adults.

President-elect Obama needs to make undoing these draconian policies a top priority, possibly by dismantling the Patriot Act and certainly by ending the war on drugs (and porn). And for that he needs an Attorney General who appreciates the concerns of civil libertarians.

The best choice would be Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore who is now Dean of Howard Law School. Schmoke has been an outspoken critic of the War on Drugs having observed its impact on his city upfront. He has argued that decriminalizing drugs would produce a huge drop in homicide rate by taking the profit out of them. He has made this his signature issue which, combined with his executive experience and solid background in jurisprudence, makes him something of an ideal candidate.

Another good choice would be Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, whom Obama reportedly considered as his running mate. It would certainly be unprecedented to appoint someone without a law background for this post. But Sen. Webb gets it right on too many issues to be passed. He is a decorated veteran who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs and Secretary of Navy during the Reagan administration. (He famously rebuffed President Bush’s inquiry about his son, who was serving in Iraq, by asking Bush when he’d bring the troops home and refusing to shake his hand). He takes civil liberties very seriously. “The government’s powers should end at my front door,” he declared. He is a staunch Second Amendment supporter. He voted to require FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court warrants for monitoring overseas calls originating in the U.S. He takes a dim view of the practice of rendition that involves transporting foreign prisoners to countries with laxer laws against torture. And he wants to reform America’s criminal justice system and opposes mandatory three strike sentencing laws. On the drug war, he has advocated treatment over incarceration for drug users as a way of reducing prison over-population.

Also solid – though not as stellar — would be Rep. Bobby Scott, an African-American-Filipino Virginia Democrat, who currently chairs the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. He has opposed at every turn the Bush administration’s efforts to expand its terror-fighting powers, voting against expanded wiretap authority and using FISA to eavesdrop into private conversations. He refused to make the Patriot Act permanent and he has generally supported reform of our drug laws to make them less draconian. On another front, he joined Rep. Bob Barr in opposing the creation of DNA databases.

Among the barely acceptable picks would be Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. A former U.S. attorney, she supports the drug war. However, she rightly opposes REAL ID, the federal program requiring states to have uniform standards for drivers’ licenses – although her opposition seems to be less out of principled concerns over the privacy and Big Brother implications of the program – and more out of funding concerns.

Among the bottom-of-the-barrel would be Eric Holder and Jamie Gorelick, both of whom were deputy attorney generals under Janet Reno. Holder’s big attraction apparently is that he would be the first African-American Attorney General. But so would Schmoke. And though Holder has a good resume, his positions and record suggest that he does not understand the constitutional limitations within which this office is supposed to operate. He is a drug warrior and even proposed to stiffen penalties for the possession of marijuana. He was also involved in the federal government’s decision to seize Elian Gonzalez from his aunt’s home and return him to Cuba without obtaining a court order, a terrible lapse of judgment. Nor is he a pillar of rectitude: There have been questions about whether he was completely upfront about the Justice Department’s conduct in the Branch Davidians-Waco fiasco. And some suspect that he might have with-held information about billionaire fugitive and tax evader, Marc Rich, to facilitate Rich’s pardon by President Clinton.

Equally bad would be Gorelick, who pushed, unsuccessfully, for the execution of Randy Weaver for killing federal agents in the botched raid in the Ruby Ridge case – rather than holding FBI agents accountable for killing Weaver’s unarmed wife.

Appointing either of them will substitute one set of excesses with another and would not offer any fundamental rethinking of Justice’s conduct or its powers.