If you thought White House-State Department relations were bad the last eight years, wait till Hillary Clinton takes the post as Secretary of State. I mean no disrespect to the Junior Senator from my home state. I agree with GOP colleagues relieved to have a hard-nosed Democrat as America’s top diplomat and am cheered that Obama’s most ideological supporters interpret her appointment as a betrayal of the campaign’s most sacred principles. But the reaction that concerns me most comes from the Washington Post's Bob Woodward. “Being president is about control,” Woodward told Chris Matthews, “and tell me who ever controlled Bill or Hillary Clinton. They can't control each other.”
In other words, Woodward and the rest of the Washington press corps are licking their chops in anticipation of a Clinton State Department and the ensuing civil war between the Oval Office and the Clintons, a conflict that will be fought loudly in the media. And that spells trouble not only for the Obama administration, but also US foreign policymaking and vital American interests across the world, especially Iran.
Anyone who believes that the role of the State Department is to implement the policies of the President has not read Woodward’s three volumes on the Bush White House. As one of Woodward’s key sources, and for many other reporters as well, Secretary of State Colin Powell effectively worked to undermine many of the President’s policies that he disagreed with. Powell is perhaps one of the most prolific anonymous/off-the-record/background sources in the history of the State Department, but the fact is that State always leaks in order to advance its own institutional interests, and often, as in Powell’s case, to serve the Secretary’s personal agenda and/or ego. Of course, State also seeks to nurture and protect its privileged and longstanding relationship with the press corps, which in turn understands that since career diplomats outlast elected officials, White Houses come and go but the State Department is a source forever.
The U.S. Department of State is the foreign-policymaking institution of the United States, with the emphasis on institution. It is the president who is actually supposed to make foreign policy, which by definition sets Foreign Service Officers against the man (or woman) elected by the citizens of the United States to serve and protect them. This will be the case even for President Obama, whose campaign promises for more diplomacy - as opposed to the ostensible pig-headed isolationism of the Bush White House - could have been scripted by the striped-pant boys at State. But because conflict is built into the system, Foggy Bottom is at odds with the White House, even at the very best of times.
Secretary Powell’s amour propre, his lack of self-restraint and failure to rein in subordinates like Richard Armitage, had a corrosive effect on US policymaking during wartime, which is to say that at the very worst of times, the contentious relationship between State and the President is a danger to US national interests. Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief to make sure his team is in order, and discipline or fire whoever steps out of line. And on this count, President Bush gets failing scores, as well as for largely handing over foreign policy to Secretary Rice these last four years, a foreign policy riddled with problems, if not failures, from North Korea to Lebanon and most importantly, Iran.
By blinking on Iran, the Bush White House handed the issue off to a President whose Iran strategy is at least sketchy. This is why many believe that Senator Clinton’s tough rhetoric on Tehran, her understanding that the mullahs pose an existential threat to Israel as they threaten our energy and security interests in the Persian Gulf make her a good choice as Secretary of State. After all, unlike the incoming president, she voted for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. Even more memorably, she derided Obama during the campaign for his willingness to meet with US foes like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions.
As Obama eventually amended his position, he explained that he would meet with such leaders only after sufficient preparation. Of course, such groundwork is laid by diplomats, including the Secretary of State. Whether or not Senator Clinton is able to set the table for President Obama to bargain with the Iranian leadership is irrelevant: There will not be a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran as there has been no deal since 1979 even though every previous US President has, futilely, reached out to Tehran. While the Iranian nuclear program pushes forward and the regime seeks to roll back US interests and allies across the region, from Iraq to the Palestinian Authority, we will have wasted time talking. Worse yet, given the dramatis personae and the stage now set with Senator Clinton at State, the attention that should be paid to Iran will instead be consumed with a domestic drama.
President Obama’s desire to have Clinton take the point on Iran shows his remarkable political savvy, but the fact that she is being set up to fail portends trouble for US policymaking at a dangerous time. The Clintons, as everyone knows, play rough and if the Secretary of State’s work on the Iranian issue comes under fire, the Madame Secretary will have considerable resources at her disposal to counterattack, namely the US Department of State, Bob Woodward and the rest of the Washington press corps.
At least insofar as foreign policy is concerned, especially regarding Iran, I believe that Mrs. Clinton would have made a better president than Mr. Obama. However, he is the commander-in-chief and the errors should be his to make and, we must hope, to learn from. The last thing we need is another Washington civil war, with Iran still pushing forward.