Sunday, November 23, 2008

Why Hillary is the Wrong Choice for Secretary of State


I don’t mean to dwell on the negative.

After all, these are heady times for liberals. Obama supporters are still marveling at the historical magnitude of what transpired on November 4th even as we embrace the promise of change. So a certain degree of generosity is to be expected as we follow Obama's lead in healing divisions and moving toward a new administration. But I don’t like the choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

It’s easy enough to appreciate the logic and the politics behind the choice. This part of the agument is compelling. Hillary is smart, tough, and well-connected. She’s also an influential and groundbreaking politician, the Democratic runner-up and, lest we forget, a Clinton. It is prudent that Obama reach an acceptable accommodation with her if he is to govern effectively.

But is she right for the job? What particular expertise or experience in foreign relations does she bring to the table? Whatever Hillary’s merits, doesn’t it make more sense to appoint a seasoned diplomat to the post, someone with actual hands-on foreign policy experience - someone like Richard Holbrooke? Hillary’s foreign policy experience is limited and it comes from her role as First Lady and from her time in the Senate. It also might be argued that the institution of the U.S. Senate is already overrepresented within the Obama administration – starting with Obama himself and Joe Biden. Senators tend to be, by necessity, generalists. There are more focused avenues of expertise within DC and expertise is what is needed here, probably more so than name recognition. Even among the big names that were considered, both John Kerry and Bill Richardson have more extensive and more relevant foreign policy experience.

And finally, and there is no escaping this: Hillary is an inherently divisive figure. This is not merely how she is perceived, it is how she operates. I don't mean to pick at old wounds, but Hillary ran an election campaign that was both stupid and nasty. Her attempts to exploit racial division in America were disgusting – as bad, if not worse, than any smears that emerged from the McCain/Palin mudfest. Ah but all of that is over now, insist the Hillary defenders. Isn’t Obama’s decision to elevate his former rival, a clever and magnanimous display of leadership? (Assuming one regards a move from the Senate to the Cabinet as an elevation. Presumably, Hillary does.) And, some have noted, if Hillary possesses a Machiavellian streak, is that really such a bad quality in a Secretary of State who will be sitting across the table from the likes of Vladimir Putin? But most importantly, isn’t it time to let bygones be bygones and find a way for Americans to set aside their differences and to work together?

Well, sure. But my objections to Hillary aren’t rooted in vindictiveness over the kind of campaign she ran. The point is that the kind of campaign she ran revealed some alarming deficiencies in her judgment – a deafness of tone and a lack of emotional intelligence. Her choice of staff, her frequent condescension and her inability to measure the consequences of her words and tactics should give us pause. A Secretary of State must not merely be smart, tough and have an extensive rolodex – she must be adroit at sizing up situations, forging alliances and seizing opportunities to win friends. In short, the post calls for a uniter, not a divider.

None of this has dampened my enthusiasm for Obama and for the most part, his cabinet seems to be shaping up nicely. Other Obama supporters remind me that Obama is a pretty smart fellow and that we should trust his judgment and his leadership which, so far, has been impressive. And I agree that it has. But it’s not lack of trust in Obama’s leadership that motivates me to write on matters such as this. I admire Obama’s qualities of leadership but I’m also aware that the truth of this nation applies to even our strongest and greatest leaders. My support for Barack Obama, as sincere and wholehearted as it is, does not move me to silent obedience - I do not work for him. Beginning on January 20, 2009, he works for me. For all of us.

1 comment:

Jeffois said...


As you surely know, I've been a Richardson Man for some time now. Sadly, he didn't make it to NY for the primaries, so I didn't have the opportunity to vote for the guy. But I agree that he'd make a better choice for State.

For me, the relevant issue is foreign policy experience. I've never been persuaded by Senator Clinton's alleged diplomatic resumè.

And yet, political reality being what it is, Obama may have had no choice. It's easily arguable that her placement in the cabinet will force her into a subordinate role that few Senators would need accept. And while there's certainly many opportunities for mischief (still a great word, isn't it?) from within the cabinet, well, cabinet officials can be fired.

Welcome to the blogosphere. Long may you rave.