Luck and timing: The bitter truth is that the next two elements are the most important to your success -- but are the ones over which you have the least control. Woody Allen was wrong: 90 percent of life isn't just showing up, it's showing up at the right time. If the world doesn't cooperate, it doesn't matter how smart you are.
You can make your own luck...up to a point. But if the mullahs don't want a deal on the nuclear issue or Netanyahu isn't interested in moving with the Palestinians, you really will be blocked from big opportunities and successes. And there really won't be much you can do about it.
Kissinger negotiated three disengagement agreements in 18 months because Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad -- to just about everyone's amazement -- opened the door by attacking Israel. Baker got to Madrid because Saddam opened the door by invading Kuwait and Bush 41 had the courage to push him out. As a result, the regional pieces were scrambled enough to afford a willful and skillful secretary of state the chance to move.
Of course, there's little doubt that a crisis will break out on your watch. But as we've seen in Syria, it might not be one that can be solved by American persuasion, manipulation, or military might.
A president who supports you: Sure the president likes and respects you greatly, as he did your predecessor. That doesn't mean he's prepared to empower you to own some of the really important issues facing the United States. Will you really be his foreign policy strategist -- charged with creating and shaping policy? Or will you be his implementer-in-chief, charged with executing policies decided on in the Oval Office?
Can You Be a Great Secretary of State?
Like your able and talented predecessor, you're going to be constrained by numbers three and four.
It's a really tough world out there. You are going to face deeply rooted -- some might say intractable -- conflicts, such as the festering dispute in Israel-Palestine. You will be faced with headaches from nuclear powers or wannabes like Iran and North Korea, who aren't preparing to roll over. And you'll be confronted by big powers such as China and Russia, who will challenge you as much as cooperate. That's before you even open up the Pandora's Box of other assorted problems, such as political turbulence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the Arab world, which will not be terribly responsive to American power. Can you identify any low-hanging fruit?
You're also working for a president who tends to dominate on foreign policy, not delegate. Spoiler alert: He thinks he's smarter than you, too. I think that not delegating is bad for him and America, particularly in a second term where stumbles are legendary and where domestic issues are likely to take much of his time. But the president has run a pretty competent foreign policy, and may see no real reason to change
So Mr. Secretary-Designate, if your goal is to be a truly consequential secretary of state, I'd respectfully offer a few pieces of unsolicited advice.
Don't contract out the big issues: There's nothing wrong with using special envoys. As of last year, the Obama administration had created a record number of 24 of these positions, of which about half report to the secretary. There are advantages of using these "specials" - they provide more substantive focus and attention to a specific issue, and can raise the issue's political profile. And in some cases, when you've got the right envoy and the crisis provides an opportunity, the model can be very effective. Just look at what late Dick Holbrooke was able to accomplish in the Balkans during his time there.
But on other big issues, it hasn't worked so well. Take the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Unless you're looking to run away from it, that's something you'll need to manage with a hands-on approach. You can't do that by finding some high profile envoy (see: Bill Clinton) to run it. You run the team yourself, handing off day-to-day supervision to someone who reports directly to you. That's how Kissinger and Baker did it. And guess what? Since then, we haven't had much success -- at least on the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- with any other model.