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.