As everyone leaves their jobs, Hillary should stay put

Earlier this week, FP scooped the world with its report that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was planning on stepping down next year. Admittedly, this is the second worst kept secret in Washington (after Barack Obama's conversion of the White House bowling alley into a mosque). But it doesn't take much to get tongues a-wagging in Washington, especially in August when the president is off in Martha's Vineyard taking windsurfing lessons from John Kerry or doing whatever people do in Martha's Vineyard. (Drink Pinot Grigio and laugh at America's working classes?)

So the question is: Who's leaving and who's staying?

Of course, no one knows for sure, but that doesn't stop people from speculating. Since Gates's Pentagon press spokesperson has subsequently clarified the SECDEF's comments without actually denying that he was going (saying that there was a big window -- almost a year -- during which he might leave), we can consider Gates in the departure lounge already. It is also widely assumed that Jim Jones, an awkward fit as National Security Advisor from day one, is on his way out. Also, likely to leave from the small group who advised the president most closely on national security matters are Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. Hillary Clinton is already missing one deputy secretary (Jack Lew, who went off to plug one of the personnel holes on the economic side at OMB). But it was thought, at least until the Lew departure, that Jim Steinberg was also likely to depart. That's quite a lot of turnover in the very small group of principals and deputies with real national security clout. And it doesn't even count the departures earlier this year of Director of National Intelligence Admiral Denny Blair and AfPak Commander General Stanley McChrystal (or the CENTCOM opening created when General David Petraeus left that slot to step in for McChrystal).

But don't worry about a thing. There's no truth to the rumor that America's most famous flight attendant Steven Slater is working the newly installed escape slide at the NSC. This is what happens toward the end of the second year of many administrations. Ok, come to think of it, it's more extreme than what happened in any recent administration. Clinton did lose his first Secretary of Defense after just a year and Reagan went through national security advisors like professional athletes go through the Kardashian sisters. But if things pan out as currently expected this is considerably more churn than usual.

But why cry over job openings in a city that craves them more than anything other than headlines or campaign cash? Instead, the summer fun comes from speculating who's going where. Already articles in Politico and elsewhere have floated names for the Gates job, from Senator Jack Reed to former Senator Chuck Hagel and included for good measure one person who I actually think will someday be secretary of defense, Michelle Flournoy, currently under secretary of defense for policy. I'm not sure now is the time for her, but she is certainly preparing for the job and is widely respected.

Who replaces Jones? Some say his deputy Tom Donilon. Some say Steinberg. Some say U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. I say, could be, but my bet would be someone else, an outsider with more international stature than any of these three. Interestingly, one bit of buzz is that Gates let slip his own departure plans so the president would know they would be next year and that he could focus later this year on properly replacing Jones. As for Emanuel, the name I've heard most is Tom Daschle, which would have been a much better choice in the first place (Obama needs more the skills of a former Senate Majority Leader in the job than he does those of a former House majority whip -- a coalition builder, rather than a tough guy.) As for Axelrod, you hear that press secretary Robert Gibbs might replace him. Honestly, they should leave the slot open. With a campaign beginning and a campaign organization likely to form soon, the president would be better off with his top political advisors doing political work in a war room someplace rather than continuing to have them doing political work in the war room in the West Wing.)

As for the deputies jobs at State, one name that comes up a lot is Wendy Sherman, who is close to Clinton, was a top advisor to Madeleine Albright and who played a central role in delicate North Korean matters during the Clinton years. Another that does not come up that often but should, if talent and experience were the key criteria, is Richard Holbrooke. He has burned many bridges in this town and has detractors but I would argue that there is no individual on the Democratic side of the ledger better equipped to be a true deputy to Secretary Clinton than Holbrooke, if what she is looking for is someone who can also get on a plane and represent and advance the interests of the Untied States at the highest level. Under Secretary Bill Burns, a career diplomat, is another possible choice for one of these jobs, as should be the exceptionally gifted and experienced Under Secretary Bob Hormats. Frankly, yet another way to go which I think would be worth considering would be for Clinton to pick a chief executive of a major international corporation for the job, someone like Pepsi's Indra Nooyi, for example, who has been deeply involved in a host of international issues and who fill a big void in the administration without a single serious, high-level private sector representative at its top levels.

One additional twist at State is that top Clinton advisor, policy planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter has reportedly always planned to stay only two years before returning to her job at Princeton where she was Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School ... and to where she has been commuting to see her family throughout her tenure.

But for all the fun of speculation, there is one serious point I'd like to make here. (Because honestly, all the above is based on rumors I've heard. Even at this late date in the Obama administration, the president has yet to call me even once for personnel advice.) Of late, and despite the heat, one of the most energetic little enterprises in town has been the constant stream of articles suggesting or even recommending that Hillary Clinton replace Gates or even that she replace Vice President Biden.

Please, Madame Secretary, ignore these suggestions. Resist them if anyone in a position of power suggests them. You are in a position to do one thing that is vitally important to the country and a second which could be important to you personally.

The one that is vitally important to the country is continuing the work you have started restoring the centrality of the State Department to U.S. foreign policy. With America's appetite and resources for military involvements overseas dwindling and with our need to adjust to a new reality in which deftly managing international relations will be vastly more important because there is so much less we can or will undertake alone, State's role must be restored. Indeed, I would argue that we may be entering a period in which it may be more important than it ever was ... precisely because we will not only be more constrained in terms of resources and political will to undertake actions alone, but also because old alliances and international mechanisms may not be suited to new challenges and new creative, foreign policy management will be critically important.

We are entering what could be -- and indeed, what must be -- not only a potential golden age for U.S. diplomacy, but one that demands new thinking, new models and imaginative leadership to bring that promise to fruition. (To pick just one very timely example of a new and central role to be played by State, consider the vastly expanded and in some cases unprecedented roles it will be asked to play in Iraq with the "end of the combat mission" there this month.) Not only does Secretary Clinton uniquely possess the stature and the skill sets to fill this role, she has a year and a half of experience getting up to speed and laying the foundations on which to build such a new department. We can ill-afford to have someone else do on the job training and we shouldn't be tempted to do so.

Finally, there is the personal side. If she stays where she is, given all the tumult around her and the relationship she has cultivated with the president and with world leaders and given the preceding sense of the changing role of the State Department, she could certainly be the most significant U.S. Secretary of State since James Baker. If, during the next several years, State successfully steps up in its new role and scores a couple of victories -- re: advancing peace talks in the Middle East, managing risks in North Korea, shaping a new role with regard to stabilization missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan -- she could be the most important secretary of state since Kissinger. It's very premature to suggest such things right now. Only the groundwork has been laid, many of the challenges are great and there are no great secretaries of state who did not serve with great presidents. So it's far from certain all will turn out so well. But it's possible. On the other hand, following in Gates's footsteps at defense, managing a very difficult draw down in Afghanistan or disappearing into the vice presidency, would not offer the same kind of possibilities -- nor do I believe she would be so well equipped to succeed in those jobs at the same level she can at State.

For the record, however, neither she nor anyone else has asked my advice on this issue, either.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Obama, we hardly know you

I was having dinner with friends the other night and the subject turned to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Fouad Ajami called "The Obsolescence of Barack Obama." The subject of the piece -- which I had not seen, but now have read -- was essentially the decline and fall of the Obama presidency. Ajami wrote that "the Obama strategy has lost the consent of the governed." 

Ajami's central assertion was that as far as this presidency is concerned, it is all over but the entropy. Due to mistakes already made, he suggested that the president had sealed his own fate, couldn't recover and that he (and we) are doomed to a Carter-like descent into presidential impotence and irrelevance. "There is little evidence," the professor writes, "that the Obama presidency could yet find new vindication, another lease on life. Mr. Obama will mark time, but henceforth he will not define the national agenda."

It was a well-argued, quite passionate piece. The problem with it was that it was arrant nonsense. (I recognize that the term "arrant nonsense" should usually be reserved for gaunt English character actors playing the Sherriff of Nottingham but in this instance it fits, and if you heard me say it with my not-so-plummy Central New Jersey accent, you wouldn't think it sounded half as pompous as it might appear in print.)

The fatal flaw in the piece was that its central thesis is dependent on the notion that all the events that will define the Obama presidency have already happened. Ajami pays lip service to the notion that "there remains the fact of his biography, a man's journey." But he is dismissive that the future can further define or revitalize this presidency. Obama, lacks "the suppleness" of Clinton, a term cleverly selected to imply both flexibility and sleaziness all at once -- a nice nuance from the point of view of partisan political writing, showing this was the work of a pro.

While Ajami writes with the serious language of a scholar, it is clear that history is of little interest to him. The die has been cast: Obama's character as president, his political viability and his future options will all be defined by how he has thus far handled the events of the first year-and-a-half of his presidency.

This is just silliness, of course. First of all, at this point in the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush they had not defined themselves and indeed, each appeared very different from how we view them today.

Kennedy was still pretty much a work in progress and the Cuban Missile Crisis was still two months away. Johnson accomplished a great deal including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act and, if defined by his first 18 months, would have been regarded as a great success. It wasn't until after 1966 that his political fortunes began to turn with the deepening involvement in Vietnam and spreading unrest in American cities. Nixon was years away from Watergate at this point. It was in August of his second year that the Camp David process began in the Carter presidency and a deal would not be struck until March of the following year. The "malaise" speech and the Iran hostage crisis were well over a year away.

Reagan, whom Ajami deeply admires and distinguishes from Obama because he allegedly believed in America more than the current president (setting aside Obama's life story as testimony that argues to the contrary), was during the first two years of his presidency still trying to find his sea-legs. Yes, he had handled the air traffic controllers but the "evil empire" speech and the "Star Wars" proposal were still, at this point in his presidency, more than half a year away. And the Iran-Contra affair (which may have slipped Ajami's mind) and the "tear down that wall" speech and the four Reagan-Gorbachev summits were all years away.

For George H.W. Bush, August of his second year in office saw Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. U.S. planning for the invasion began in the ensuing weeks. But arguably, for all his successes, Bush's enduring image was shaped most by his missteps during the 1992 campaign. The supple presidency of Bill Clinton that began next really didn't reach its full suppliciousness until the second term, both in terms of economic successes, foreign policy triumphs or the scandal that redefined it. Finally, similarly, while 9/11 offered George W. Bush his finest hour in the first year of his term, the invasion of Iraq that defined him did not take place until 2003 and the mismanagement of the war that defined it almost as much as its misconception took several years after that.

In other words, no recent president (I left out Gerald Ford due to the unique circumstances and tenure of his presidency) has been defined at this point in his presidency and most saw major swings in popularity and objective successes and failures throughout their terms. In short, recent history suggests that it is almost impossible to know a president or characterize a presidency at this point in a term of office.

Further, as we know, much of how these presidents are currently viewed was shaped in the years after they left office. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton have all seen their reputations rebound considerably or at least be burnished by either post-presidential activities or the work of partisan or family-owned image-burnishing machinery.

Finally, the reality is that much of what defines a president is not within the control of even the most powerful individual on earth to conceive, design or implement. Much of it has to do with externalities. Tell me what the unemployment rate will be next year and the year after, and I'll tell you whether Obama wins re-election. Unless there is a terror attack or natural disaster that intervenes, and then tell me how he responds to that -- and we can formulate an idea as to how he will be viewed. (And don't tell me he is responsible for the unemployment number and can fix it. He can influence it but most of the best economists in America haven't a clue as to how to address our current labor crisis or whether or not anything we might do would be able to impact it in a lasting and positive way.)

In short, we have learned much about Obama and certainly, Ajami is right that the mystique of the campaign and early days in office has worn off and, as he writes, "good riddance." But, the Obama presidency, if it is like any of those before, has yet to be defined. Indeed, it is how he deals with unexpected and unanticipated events that are yet to come -- or to the unintended consequences of his initial policy moves -- that is more likely to define his presidency than anything that has happened thus far.