Clinton To Bring Baggage to State Department

The New York Times writes that Hillary Clinton will accept an offer to be Secretary of State. The good news is that this will get her out of domestic policy. The bad news is that she will have a voice in foreign policy.

To some degree I was hoping Clinton would get the job in order to keep her out of domestic policy in the hopes that Obama could then ignore Clinton as Bush ignored Colin Powell. I also noted problems with the idea of having a Secretary of State who is not on the same page on foreign policy as the president. Spencer Ackerman points out another problem with having Clinton as Secretary of State. Clinton will bring people who share her ideas to the State Department. Ackerman writes:

Clinton herself isn’t so much the problem, they say. It’s the loyalists and traditional thinkers Clinton is likely to bring into the State Dept. if she becomes secretary.

The dispute is only partly ideological in nature. While the coterie of foreign-policy thinkers around Obama have been more liberal, in an aggregate sense — on issues like Iraq and negotiations with America’s adversaries — the Obama loyalists question the boldness of the Clintonites. They fear that Obama’s apparent embrace of Clinton represents an acquiescence to the conventional Democratic foreign-policy approaches that they once derided as courting disaster. Some wonder whether a Clinton-run State Dept. will hire progressive Obama partisans after an acrimonious primary.

In addition, some Obama loyalists wonder whether the same people who attacked Obama on foreign policy during the primaries can implement Obama’s agenda from State Dept. perches. “Look, Clinton and Obama are both smart people,” said one Democratic official who would not speak for the record, “and I’m sure their one-on-one relationship would be OK. But when you hire a Clinton, you hire more than just that one person, you get the entire package.” If Clinton becomes secretary of state, it’s possible that the fissures between her loyalists and Obama’s would be a significant undercurrent of the administration’s foreign-policy decision-making.

Ackerman considers this significant both in the formulation of policy in the State Department at present and in determining who will have top positions in the future:

“Basically, you have all of these young, next-generation and mid-career people who took a chance on Obama” during the primaries, said one Democratic foreign-policy expert included in that cohort. “They were many times the ones who were courageous enough to stand up early against Iraq, which is why many of them supported Obama in the first place. And many of them would likely get shut out of the mid-career and assistant-secretary type jobs that you need, so that they can one day be the top people running a future Democratic administration.”

In the foreign-policy bureaucracy, these middle-tier jobs — assistant secretary and principal-deputy-assistant and deputy-assistant — are stepping stones to bigger, more important jobs, because they’re where much of the actual policy-making is hashed out. Those positions flesh out strategic decisions made by the president and cabinet secretaries; implement those policies; and use their expertise to both inform decisions and propose targeted or specific solutions to particular crises.

There are significant ideological differences between the Obama and Clinton people, plus one of the key Obama people called Hillary Clinton a monster, probably disqualifying her from a job at the State Department.

There is an ideological component as well — though it is more complicated than either side typically admits. During the Democratic primaries, the Clinton campaign attracted more familiar Democratic faces from the foreign-policy community — the people derided by the liberal blogosphere as self-styled Very Serious People — who tended to be less progressive than their counterparts in the Obama campaign. The foreign-policy wing of the Obama campaign, during the primaries, considered itself as a force for redressing the timidity of the traditional Democratic foreign-policy community that acquiesced to disasters like the Iraq war.

“You’ve already begun to see it even before Sen. Clinton gets to the State Dept.,” said the foreign-policy official who has served in previous administrations. “Look at the people on the transition team. These are not people who necessarily supported Obama in campaign, and had different views on Iraq.”

Some Obama loyalists pointed to a 2007 memo written by Harvard’s Samantha Power — a former leading Obama adviser who resigned from the campaign after making an untoward remark about Clinton — that summarized the Obama campaign’s ideological meta-critique of many of the people who might staff a Clinton-run State Dept. Titled “Conventional Wisdom vs. the Change We Need,” the campaign released Power’s memo to the press after the Clinton campaign labeled Obama naive for proposing negotiations with dictators without preconditions; for ruling out the use of nuclear weapons on terrorist training camps; and for proposing highly-conditioned military strikes in Pakistan against senior Al Qaeda operatives.

“It was Washington’s conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy,” writes Power, who declined to speak for this story. “The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress. Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced and even naïve.”

Some in the Obama camp are left wondering whether picking Clinton as secretary of state represents an acquiescence to such conventional wisdom. “That memo was emblematic in many ways of the difference between the two groups,” said a Democratic foreign-policy expert and Obama loyalist. Asked about the ideological implications of the difference, the expert said, “The early Obama supporters were generally much more opposed to Iraq and you can draw out assumptions from there.”

Be Sociable, Share!


  1. 1
    ed kriner says:

    The biggest charge Obama was able to “make stick” on Clinton was her failure to vote NO on the Use of Force resolution.  Over and over during the primary campaign Obama returned to that meme.  Now, he reverses course and appoints Clinton to SoS position?  Something just doesn’t “smell” right there.

    Ditto Biden and Emannuel.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    There were many other differences between Clinton and Obama on foreign policy. I imagine Obama figures it is safer to have Clinton in his administration, where she has to support his foreign policy, than to have her in the Senate opposing his policies.

Leave a comment