It's His Prerogative

Let Obama pick his secretary of state. Even if it's Susan Rice. 

Susan Rice should be America's next secretary of state. At least, she should be if the president wants her to be. But just who takes over in Foggy Bottom is far from the most important decision President Barack Obama faces when it comes to his national security team.

Let's get the Rice question out of the way first. It was heartening to see that over the past few days, Republican opposition to her appointment seems to have softened. The attacks over her Benghazi statements were among the most egregious examples of attempting to shoot the messenger in recent U.S. political history. Benghazi was a tragedy, and it deserves a thorough investigation. Mistakes were made.

But they were not Susan Rice's mistakes, and there is no evidence that she did anything other than present the administration's talking points as asked. If there is fault -- and there surely is regarding security for U.S. officials in Libya, and there may be in the administration's seemingly politically motivated decision to put off acknowledging the obvious terrorist roots of the attack -- it lies elsewhere. That said, the biggest reason to shift the focus away from Benghazi is that it is a double distraction, both from the important business of putting in place a high-quality national security team and from the extraordinarily complex challenges posed by the spreading, interconnected crises currently bedeviling the Middle East.

The situation in the Middle East is more dangerous than it has been since the height of the Cold War, and it is only one of an array of profoundly complex challenges the president's national security team will face in the next four years. Virtually all -- from the rise of new powers to America's challenges at home, from the impact of new technologies to the need for new alliances and institutions -- will demand a kind of new thinking not seen in U.S. foreign policy in decades. It is the "what" and the "how" of this foreign policy that are at the moment more important than the "who."

Of course, people make policies, and the cocktail of personalities at the center of the policy-making process will be a key component in determining whether Obama is ultimately viewed as a creative change-agent in tune with his times or a disappointing vestige of the status quo, the latest American political leader to steer the ship of state by looking squarely in the rear-view mirror.

Especially because this president has already shown a strong pre-disposition to hands-on management and keeping his inner circle very small, picking people with proven access to him -- people he already trusts -- is so important. Rice's closeness to the president is her strongest asset. The relationship between top officials and the president is critical in all administrations, not just those with a tight inner circle like this one. Indeed, in the American system, the power of top officials rises and falls with their relationship with the chief executive. We've seen secretaries of state with great resumes -- hugely capable people -- be hamstrung by not being sufficiently empowered by their boss. There are few better examples of this than the plight of Colin Powell, or the degree to which Condoleezza Rice's close ties to President George W. Bush helped give her more clout, as foreign leaders knew she had the ear and trust of the boss in the way her more experienced immediate predecessor did not.

As it happens, I know Susan Rice pretty well. I knew her when we both served in the Clinton administration and then afterwards, when we worked together for a few years in a small consulting company here in Washington. I know just how hard-headed and prickly she can be. I've got the psychological scars to prove it. But I also know that she is extraordinarily hard-working, dedicated, ethical, and intelligent. As it happens, she can also be exceptionally funny and warm. The nonsense that she is somehow not qualified for the job is indefensible. Her White House, State Department, and U.N. experience is the equal of that of many of her recent predecessors, including Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and, arguably in foreign-policy terms, Hilary Clinton.

As for her temperament, raising it is pure sexism. Why is she called abrasive, when clearly, similar toughness was hailed in our most powerful and respected secretaries of state -- from Henry Kissinger to George Shultz to James Baker? All had their battles. Even reputedly smooth diplomats like Cyrus Vance and Warren Christopher could be all elbows behind the scenes.

For these reasons, if Obama wants Rice, he should be able to pick her. She's not the only qualified candidate. The president would do well with many of the other names that have been floated, from current Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns to former Under Secretary of State Nick Burns, from former Senators Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar to current Senator John Kerry. One of the best possible choices the president could make would be Tom Donilon, his national security advisor.

But frankly, if you asked me -- and so far, no one has -- Donilon should stay right where he is. The national security advisor slot is especially important in a close-hold White House like this one. He has the trust of the president, and has already demonstrated himself to be exceptionally capable at managing the policy formation process that is so critical to national security success. One of the most important reasons that one of Donilon's models in the job, Brent Scowcroft, was perhaps America's most successful national security advisor of all time was that he actually had done the job before. Donilon would get better, too, with another term in the job, and the president would be lucky to have him there. Continuity will be important given that the secretary of state, secretary of defense, and CIA director will all likely be new to their positions.

In the case of each of these jobs, as with the secretary of state, the critical X-factor will be the president. It is not who he picks so much as how he chooses to work with them that will determine the success or failure of his team. In our system, the most important national security position by far is that of the commander-in-chief. He can have a great team and fail to empower it, or set the wrong priorities, or fail to put his shoulder into the implementation of policy initiatives -- and nothing will work.

For that reason, it is not so much which of the many qualified candidates for the top jobs he picks, but rather which Barack Obama shows up at morning security briefings, cabinet meetings, and in other settings that will determine whether the Obama administration rises to the exceptional challenges of the times in which we are living.

He should be given the latitude therefore to pick his own team. But he should recognize that it is not the Senate confirmation process that will be most important, but rather his own empowerment process once his people are in position. After all, it is not what these people have done in the past that matters, but whether he and his new team will be able to do things that have never been done before -- whether he encourages and enables them to set aside the old playbook and to develop the new one we so urgently need.

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David Rothkopf

The Opposite of Thinking

The key ingredient missing in our policymaking these days? Creativity.

Once again, Foreign Policy has with characteristic humility compiled its list of leading Global Thinkers. How we could possibly identify the top 100 thinkers on a planet of 7 billion people when we've never met a fairly considerable number of those people is not something we dwell on when discussing our methodology. Suffice it to say, the list is impressionistic. (OK, it's more than a little ridiculous. But this is a tradition, so let's just keep that between us, shall we?)

Dubious or not, there is something even more, shall we say, curious about the idea of a foreign-policy magazine doing the ranking. For starters, policy itself is more or less the opposite of thinking. It implies the development of a set of rules or guidelines that shape and direct actions. In fact, however, policy is designed to help keep people who aren't actually policymakers from doing any thinking at all at critical moments. And it doesn't take much more than a cursory look at how well things are going here on this little planet to reveal that foreign policymakers are not doing such a great job with all the thinking they are allegedly being paid to do.

Take U.S. foreign policy. The biggest, most important idea it gave us in the past decade was "the war on terror." This was just a terrible concept on every level, an ill-conceived misuse of resources in pursuit of an unachievable goal that did vastly more damage than good. And it came straight from America's policy elites.

It's hardly an exception. There's a whole pantheon of recent American ideas about the U.S. presence in the world that were seemingly created in a thought-deprived environment. The United States, for example, is still committed to spending more money on defense than the next 17 countries combined -- even though the country is broke and the vast majority of those countries are either America's allies or not a threat at all. Indeed, the notion that the United States needs to make defense spending its No. 1 national discretionary spending priority, ahead of things like investing in education, research, infrastructure, or other pursuits that actually make the country stronger, is a proven formula for national calamity. (See Paul Kennedy on the decline of empires.)

If you look at what the United States is spending that money on, the bad idea is revealed to be even worse than it appears. Quite apart from the waste that is such a substantial part of America's self-destructive defense-spending spree (yes, it's true: the U.S. military has more musicians in its bands than the State Department has diplomats), the U.S. national security budget is rife with redundancies and outmoded systems. For example, each branch of the service has its own air force, and now the CIA wants to expand its drone fleet to create yet another. (For that matter, the United States has more intelligence agencies than actual enemy nations.) And it won't take too long into the next major world war to reveal how antiquated are the carrier battle groups around which much of U.S. naval power is built.

Invading Iraq? Bad idea. Spending more than a decade fighting in Afghanistan? Ditto. Regularly violating other countries' sovereign airspace with drone attacks? National security need or not, it's hard to argue that the policy doesn't violate the fundamental rules of an international system that America spent much of the 20th century trying to develop. War on drugs? A failure by any measure. And how's that "reset" with Russia going? Or that campaign to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Efforts to bolster the international economic system following the 2008 financial crisis? Also a loser -- today, there are more banks that are too big to fail, more dubious derivatives being created, and arguably more risk in the system than when the crisis started.

As bad as these are, however, they are in many ways transcended in the bad-idea category by our failure to address the real big issues that confront us. Take the unrest in the Middle East, which is clearly due to the failure to create jobs and opportunity for the region's millions of young people. Yet the world is unable to unite behind any major measures to make progress there. Or consider this: According to the United Nations, lack of access to clean water and water-borne diseases kill 5 million people a year, about 90 times the number who die in war annually. According to the U.N. Environment Program, spending just $20 million on low-cost water technologies could dramatically improve the lives of 100 million people -- about what the war in Afghanistan cost in 2011 every 90 minutes. Then, of course, there's global warming, where notwithstanding tidal waves of scientific evidence suggesting we are overcooking the planet and could displace hundreds of millions of people and destroy vital swaths of the environment, it is apparently a priority of exactly no one in an influential position in either U.S. political party.

All the above may seem obvious to you. But if genius is the ability to recognize the obvious before anyone else, isn't stupidity therefore the failure to do anything about the obvious even after everyone with a functioning brain has come to see it as readily apparent? The point is: Big challenges demand big ideas. New challenges demand new thinking. And right now, the big new challenges of our time -- from the rise of new powers and the changing geopolitical landscape to shifting global resource demands -- require a kind of thought they are clearly not getting. Instead, we have a policymaking apparatus that discourages creativity.

That's why lists like our Global Thinkers are important. Flawed though they may be, they highlight and celebrate people who are willing to think outside the box. They reward the kind of creative rigor that is cheered in artists and entrepreneurs but all too often is utterly missing in our policymakers. And who knows, with a little bit of luck, they may even get a few more of those policymakers to thinking themselves.

Illustration by Peter Wilson via Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images