What It Takes to Be a Great Secretary of State

(And why we can't have one in the Obama administration.)

First, full disclosure: I really admire Hillary Clinton.

I was never an FOB or an FOH* in the political sense of the term, though I did work for her husband, whom I also like. In 2000, while at the U.S. State Department, I had the privilege of accompanying her to the funeral of Leah Rabin, the wife of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Then, as now, she struck me as a smart, charismatic leader, a quick study with a strong sense of humor and of the absurd -- both very useful when working on foreign-policy basket cases where chances of solutions are slim to none. The Clintonites can shoot me if they want, but Clinton isn't going to end up in the Secretary of State Hall of Fame.

You might conclude otherwise, given the tsunami of favorable media coverage she has received, particularly from the traveling press corps. But that's not unusual. Alone among the cabinet secretaries, America's top diplomat traditionally already wears a nonpartisan halo, whether her name is Albright or Rice.

Still, what the media haven't done is to ask some of the tough questions about what makes a truly consequential secretary of state. Nor has the press (or the punditocracy, for that matter) been able to establish any standard against which her performance might be measured.

My take on her performance -- midway through what is likely to be her last year in the job -- has little to do with her own abilities, which are impressive.

What shapes Clinton's performance more are the two unfriendly universes in which she operates: the cruel world beyond America's shores and the bureaucratically skewed one back home. Throw in her own innate caution when it comes to taking on some of the hopeless issues of the day (see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran), and what you have is a very hardworking and smart media superstar who fights for her department at home and shines abroad on several key 21st-century issues that she has identified as critical, but has yet to put any major points on the board. The Twitter summary of Clinton's legacy would read: No spectacular failures, but no spectacular achievements either. A John Quincy Adams, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, or James Baker she's not.

Over the years, I've thought a great deal about what is required to be a truly effective, consequential, even great secretary of state. The position is a unique one. It's the second-best job in Washington and carries a status no other cabinet position holds, period.

Part of the halo effect is that the job is supposed to be apolitical, like the country's foreign policy itself. When it comes to foreign policy, politics is supposed to stop at the water's edge. And Americans like to believe, somewhat naively, that the country's top diplomat is immune or somehow protected from the seamier aspects of Washington's partisan swamp. Secretaries of state are expected to rise above the fray, and they generally try to. This is one reason their public image and favorability ratings tend to be so high.

Still, in the history of the Republic, only two secretaries of state have resigned over reasons of high principle -- William Jennings Bryan and Cyrus Vance. The job -- like so much of America's high politics -- is filled by survivors, not martyrs. Tending to the country's foreign policy is a tough assignment, one that requires a combination of skill and luck to succeed.

The latter is particularly important. If crisis opens the door to greatness in the presidency, it does the same for the country's top diplomat. Had there been no Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt lamented about his own missing great moment, no one would have known Abraham Lincoln's name. Without the right kind of crisis abroad, no matter how talented the secretary of state, there's no chance to demonstrate his or her stuff.

So what makes a great secretary of state? Fortuna is necessary, but not sufficient for top-level performance. Three other elements are required too.

1. The president must have your back.

All presidents support their secretaries of state, but not all get the kind of support critical to success. Baker used to say that he was George H.W. Bush's man at the State Department, not the State Department's man at the White House. Those two were particularly close, and it gave Baker real authority, power, and street credibility. Kissinger and Richard Nixon, on the other hand, were more competitive, though each exploited the other's talent and authority to command and marshal respect and power.

If there's daylight between the two or if it's clear that the White House isn't really empowering the secretary to take on the important issues of the day, the latter's status is diminished. The president not only needs to tell the world that his secretary of state is a trusted confidante, but he also needs to demonstrate it. If a president doesn't charge the secretary with responsibility for tackling the biggest challenges, how does he or she become truly important?

2. Anatomy really is destiny.

Freud was talking about gender differences here. But the capacity to project a physical presence and persona is critical to success in politics and foreign policy. And that persona, F. Scott Fitzgerald held, flowed from an unbroken series of gestures. Effective presidents and secretaries of state are actors on a public stage; they require charm, flattery, toughness, and drama to make allies and adversaries take them seriously, particularly in a negotiation or crisis.

That means playing any number of roles, sometimes with high gestures of real or feigned anger, frustration, or disappointment. During the 1948 Senate hearings on the plan for European recovery that would bear his name, Marshall, whom columnist James Reston described that day as displaying legendary "moral grandeur," silenced an interrupting senator with a single glare. Kissinger threatened to walk out on Syria's Hafez al-Assad at least once; Baker did the same with Assad, the Palestinians, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

3. The negotiator's mindset.

Beavers build dams, and teenagers talk on the phone and text. By definition, effective secretaries of state work negotiations, defuse crises, and tackle issues that normal human beings consider very hard. A coherent worldview is important too, but not as critical as the instinctive capacity to know how to make a deal, sense the opportunity, and then figure out how to close it.

Kissinger may have been the grand strategist, but both he and Baker had the negotiator's mindset, the ability to figure out how to assemble the pieces of the puzzle strewn on the living room floor and stay even when all the pieces didn't quite fit. Kissinger's Middle East diplomacy -- three disengagement agreements following the October 1973 war -- is a remarkable testament to those skills: The one between Israel and Syria still survives, while the other two, between Egypt and Israel, evolved into a peace treaty. There's no school at which to learn these kinds of things. Marshall was a military man; Kissinger an academic; Baker a lawyer. All possessed a natural ability to gauge how to move the pieces around on the board.

Almost four years in, Hillary Clinton is undeniably one for three.

She clearly has star power -- a Gallup poll last year had Clinton at an approval rating of 66 percent, more popular than the president and the vice president and better regarded than she herself has been at any time since 1993. And in terms of raw ability, she has the smarts and work ethic to do the job.

We know Clinton is talented. What we don't know is how she'd do in a sustained negotiation or in coordinating and orchestrating a grander political and military design. Her capacity in that regard has never really been tested, and likely won't be: You can't be a John Quincy Adams negotiating a historic treaty with Spain, a Dean Acheson orchestrating the Truman Doctrine, or a George Marshall doing NATO unless Fortuna and your boss let you.

What about her relationship with the president? Political rivals turned compatriots can make for close bonds -- think Rabin and Shimon Peres. Frenemies? Perhaps there's a great respect between the two born of political combat and now from the common challenge of making America's foreign policy work.

But by either circumstance or design, her relationship with President Barack Obama doesn't seem to have produced real empowerment. Sure, they may have lunch together each week and she has a chance to weigh in on key decisions, but he hasn't allowed her to own the high-profile issues. And ownership is critical to at least having a chance to do big things.

This doesn't mean she lacks accomplishments. She has fought hard and succeeded in acquiring resources for the State Department; used her star power to improve America's image abroad; sharpened America's response to the Libyan crisis; focused on development, technology, and the environment in a way few of her predecessors have; and highlighted the urgency of women's issues from one end of the planet to the other. That she's had no legacy achievements is less her doing than the result of two self-reinforcing realities.

First, in this administration, power on domestic policy and foreign policy is lodged in the White House. Many key issues (and the strategic policies that shape them), from Iran to Afghanistan to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are reposited there, the president's various envoys and czars notwithstanding.

The irony really is quite striking. Here's a president who inherited the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. You might have thought he'd be only too happy to delegate some of the big issues to his secretary of state. This hasn't happened; the White House controls everything of real consequence. Indeed, whoever gets the job when Clinton leaves should take notice: This president doesn't let go, at least on foreign policy.

Second, one reason for the absence of ownership is the changing nature of the world Clinton inherited. The reality is that there haven't been all that many good chances for successful diplomacy. The conflicts where U.S. diplomacy might actually bridge gaps between conflicting parties -- always rare -- are tough to identify. There are plenty of crises, but are any really amenable to effective diplomacy?

I know the rap that effective secretaries create their own opportunities. But negotiating with the mullahcracy in Iran on the nuclear issue? Going for broke with Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu on the Israeli-Palestinian issue? Building nations in Iraq and Afghanistan by sorting out differences between Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites? Let's get real.

The fact that Obama inherited the two longest wars in U.S. history also gives the Pentagon an outsized role in his foreign policy. The State Department is of course deeply involved in the political dimensions of these issues. But abroad the military quite appropriately runs these wars, and at home, because of the stakes in American lives and money, the White House controls and coordinates high policy.

Finally, there's the secretary's own caution.

Clinton was a star even before becoming secretary of state; she had little to prove. Ditto for Colin Powell. That kind of fame also makes you less hungry and less eager to take risks.

Maybe it's also just smart political instincts. I suspect that when Clinton looks around the world these days, she concludes that all these high-level issues she doesn't own are really a dog's lunch; they are opportunities all right -- for failure. Sometimes getting out of the way of history is better than getting run over by it. And knowing what you can't do is as important as figuring out what you can.

Perhaps Clinton is a secretary of state well suited for her times. She has faithfully carried out the president's policies and reinforced the balance he's trying to strike: how to lead a world in which America has to be much more discerning and disciplined about where and how it projects its power. To the extent Obama is succeeding in this enterprise, she is too. And whatever the future holds for her, she'll be remembered as a pretty competent secretary of state.

So what if Hillary Clinton doesn't get admitted into the Foggy Bottom Hall of Fame. James Buchanan didn't either, and he was the last secretary of state to become president. But who's thinking about that?

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Reality Check

Six Big Lies About How Jerusalem Runs Washington

From the Jewish cabal to the Capitol Hill Knesset, the worst leaps of logic when it comes to Israel, U.S. politics, and the Middle East.

Several years after leaving government, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post titled "Israel's Lawyer." The article was an honest effort to explain how several senior officials in U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration (myself included) had a strong inclination to see the Arab-Israeli negotiations through a pro-Israel lens. That filter played a role -- though hardly the primary one -- in the failure of endgame diplomacy, particularly at the ill-fated Camp David summit in July 2000.

Unsurprisingly, the piece was hijacked in the service of any number of agendas, especially by critics of Israel only too eager to use my narrow point about the Clinton years to make their broader one: America had long compromised its own values and interests in the Middle East by its blind and sordid obeisance to the Jewish state and its pro-Israeli supporters in the United States.

Here we go again. Election years seem to bring out the worst -- not only in politicians, but in advocates, analysts, and intellectuals too. Nowhere are the leaps and lapses of logic and rationality greater than in the discussion of Israel, the Jews, domestic U.S. politics, and the Middle East. Once again, we're hearing that a U.S. president is being dragged to war with Iran by a trigger-happy Israeli prime minister and his loyal acolytes in America.

Before we lose our collective minds (again), it might be useful to review some of the myths and misconceptions about domestic U.S. politics and America's Middle East policies that still circulate all too widely in Europe and the Arab world -- and sadly in the United States too. Here are a half-dozen of the worst ones.

1. The White House is Israeli-occupied territory.

The idea that American Jews in collusion with the Israeli government (and, for some time now, evangelical Christians) hold U.S. foreign policy hostage is not only wrong and misleading but a dangerous, dark trope. It coexists with other hateful -- and, yes, anti-Semitic -- canards about how Jews control the media and the banks, and the world as well. It's reality distortion in the extreme, with little basis in fact. The historical record just doesn't support it. Strong, willful presidents who have real opportunities (and smart strategies to exploit them) to promote U.S. interests almost always win out and trump domestic lobbies.

Indeed, when it counts and national interests demand it, presidents who know what they're doing move forward in the face of domestic pressures and usually prevail. Whether it's arms sales to the Arabs (advanced fighter jets to Egyptians or AWACS to Saudis) or taking tough positions on Arab-Israeli negotiating issues in the service of agreements (see: Henry Kissinger and the 1973-1975 disengagement agreements with Israel, Egypt, and Syria; President Jimmy Carter, Camp David, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978 and 1979; and Secretary of State James Baker and the 1991 Madrid peace conference), administrations have their way. The fights can be messy and politically costly, but that doesn't preclude policymakers from having them.

No U.S. president would pick a fight with a close ally, particularly one that had strong domestic support, without good reason and a clear purpose. To wit, President George H.W. Bush and Baker's decision to deny the Israelis billions of dollars in housing-loan guarantees because of settlement construction on the eve of the Madrid conference made sense. It sent a powerful signal to the Israelis and Arabs at a critical moment that America meant business. President Barack Obama's war with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a settlement freeze didn't: One was a productive fight with a purpose, and the other was an unproductive one with no strategy. At the end of the day, Obama got the worst of all outcomes: He pissed off the Israelis and the Palestinians, and he got no negotiations and no freeze. That Obama was seen to have backed down in the end only made matters worse, making it appear that he lost his nerve with Netanyahu. Even so, none of this means the Israelis run the White House. Obama's failure was much a result of a self-inflicted wound.

2. The U.S.-Israel relationship rests on shared values alone.

Israel's critics believe that without domestic politics, there would be little to the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Israel's supporters, meanwhile, like to believe that politics has little to do with it. Neither is right. The U.S.-Israel relationship is a curious marriage of shared values, national interests, and domestic politics.

Sure, common values are at the top of the list. There's no way the bond between Washington and Jerusalem would be as strong and as durable these many years without broad public belief that it was in America's national interest to support a fellow democracy. These shared values more than anything else -- not Israel’s importance as an strategic ally -- is the foundation of the bond.

Since 1950, only 22 countries have maintained their democratic character continuously -- and Israel's one of them. That the Jewish people have a very dark history of persecution and genocide and that millions of Americans have powerful religious connections to Israel and the Holy Land has only made the sell easier and the bond stronger.

But let's not kid ourselves -- and activists at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other Jewish organizations don't. Without the strong vocal support of a unified American Jewish community that brings pressure to bear in Congress, assistance levels to Israel would not be nearly as high as they have been for so long. AIPAC not only assiduously guards the pre-existing pro-Israeli tilt among the American public, but it also defines for much of the Jewish and political establishment what it means to be pro-Israel in America today. Its clout on Capitol Hill sends a powerful message to elected officials, many of whom already share general sympathy with Israel and who have no desire to cross swords with a powerful lobby that might jeopardize what they've come to Washington to do: advance their constituents' interests.

3. Lobbies are evil.

The United States' Founding Fathers were very worried about factions with special interests. But lobbies and special interests advocating causes -- from guns to tobacco to senior citizens -- aren't some kind of dark cabal plotting in a cloakroom. They are a natural part of America's democratic political system and, yes, part of a culture that has many excesses that bend the system and often reflect the seamier aspects of U.S. politics. But good luck trying to eliminate the practice of citizens and groups organizing to press their elected representatives to support an issue. The U.S. system -- whatever the Founders intended -- was a natural for lobbing and special pleading.

I'm not sure that has ever been clearly understood in the Middle East or in Europe, where lobbies are viewed as some nefarious force operating in the shadows with the aim of holding U.S. foreign policy hostage. When a former Arab diplomat I know once referred to the U.S. Congress as the Little Knesset, he was not only mocking a system -- he was jealous too. Arab Americans only wish they could marshal AIPAC's power.

America's foreign policy -- like its unruly politics-- is forged in a competitive arena of many voices, influences, and interests. But let me be clear: I don't want the American Jewish community controlling Washington's Middle East policy; nor do I want it run by Congress or regional specialists in the State Department for that matter.

Here's where a willful, smart president with a sound strategy is critically important -- both in exercising constitutional powers and in responding to the practical reality that the executive branch is the only actor in the U.S. system that can guide and lead the country abroad. Indeed, the power of the pro-Israel community recedes the farther away you get from Capitol Hill. The pro-Israel community has a powerful voice, but it doesn't have a veto.

4. His Jewish advisors made him do it.

This charge -- which has been leveled at senior officials in both Clinton's and George W. Bush's administrations -- that presidents are controlled by a tiny group of American Jewish advisers is as absurd as it is pernicious. I speak from personal experience. I admit it freely: Several Clinton administration officials, including me -- with the best of intentions -- adopted an approach to the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in 1999 and 2000, both on substance and on process, that reflected Israeli needs far more than those of the Palestinians. These views, however, gained currency not because the president's advisors, who happened to be American Jews, were pushing them, but because they made sense to a non-Jewish president with great sensitivity for the Israelis -- and a great deal for the Palestinians too.

Some of these same advisors worked for Bush 41 and Baker too, yet policy turned out quite differently, much more balanced and tougher on Israel (take, for example, the denial of loan guarantees). The fact is that policy advisors -- to paraphrase The Eagles in one of the band's better love songs -- don't take policymakers anywhere they don't already want to go. Here is where adult supervision is essential. Indeed, it's ultimately the responsibility of the president to sort through these views and determine which ones make sense and which ones don't -- and then to make the best decision possible. The key is to have a variety of views. To blame senior official X as the primary reason a president supports Israel or favors this approach or that is absurd.

Obama is no lawyer for Israel. If he chooses not to push his confrontation with Netanyahu, it's not because an advisor with a pro-Israel agenda is whispering in his ear; it's because the president has his own political agenda, has other priorities, or realizes the fight won't produce the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations he seeks. In the Obama administration, you'd better believe that it's the president who runs things.

5. Election-year politics are driving Obama to war with Iran.

You've heard the rap many times. Election-year politics erode a president's room to maneuver, chain him to collecting votes, and increase the odds substantially that political interests will trump the country's. This year's presidential election has been dominated by the economy, but when foreign policy has intruded into the campaign, it has been on one issue: Iran. It's erroneous, however, to conclude that because it's an election year, Obama is being pushed to war -- either by Republicans or by the pro-Israel community. Sure, he has toughened his rhetoric, but whether that's smart politics or smart policy (to keep the Iranians under pressure) isn't clear. It's probably both.

The fact is, this president doesn't do anything quickly or recklessly -- or under pressure. He's the deliberator-in-chief. And as he ponders, one thing is clear: The last thing he needs leading up to an election he has a very good chance of winning is a war in the Middle East. And an Israeli strike or an American one that would bring on $200 a barrel oil, thus raising prices at the pump and deflating the fragile U.S. economic recovery, is not something Obama wants. Whatever the Israeli prime minister got from the president in their meeting this month at the White House, it wasn't a green -- or even a yellow -- light to strike Iran's nuclear sites.

6. Barack Obama is just as pro-Israel as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

There's no question that Obama understands and appreciates the special relationship between Israel and the United States. But Obama isn't Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to Israel -- not even close. These guys were frustrated by Israeli prime ministers too, but they also were moved and enamored by them (Clinton by Yitzhak Rabin, Bush by Ariel Sharon). They had instinctive, heartfelt empathy for the idea of Israel's story, and as a consequence they could make allowances at times for Israel's behavior even when it clashed with their own policy goals. Obama is more like George H.W. Bush when it comes to Israel, but without a strategy.

If Obama is emotional when it comes to Israel, he's hiding it. Netanyahu obviously thinks he's bloodless. But then again, the U.S. president can be pretty reserved on a number of issues. Obama doesn't feel the need to be loved by the Israelis, and perhaps American Jews either. Combine that with a guy who's much more comfortable in gray than in black and white, and you have a president who sees Israel's world in much more nuanced terms, which is clearly hard for many Israelis and American Jews to accept. In Obama's mind, Israel has legitimate security needs, but it's also the strongest regional power. As a result, he believes that the Israelis should compromise on the peace process, give nonmilitary pressures against Iran time to work, and recognize that despite the uncertainties of the Arab Spring, now is the time to make peace with the Palestinians.

If Obama had a chance to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship and make it a little less special, he probably would. But I guess that's the point: He probably won't have the chance. If he gets a second term, he'll more than likely be faced with the same mix of Middle East headaches, conflicting priorities, narrow maneuvering room, and the swirl of domestic politics that bedevils him today. If the U.S. president fails to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace, it will be primarily because the Israelis, the Palestinians, and Barack Obama wouldn't pay the price, not because the pro-Israel community in America got in his way.

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