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Clinton's bluntness on Mexico was right

In her well-received remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let slip a statement that immediately sent the inter-American affairs semantic fashion police scurrying. She referred to the on-going threat posed by Mexican drug cartels and their allies to Mexican society as an "insurgency."

This comment was immediately disputed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon's administration, which argued that they were not becoming another Colombia and that they were doing what was necessary to keep its political system from being co-opted, corrupted and battered into ineffectiveness or worse. It also made some in the State Department and in the -- very conventionally-minded and cautious -- U.S. Latin American policy community squirm.

All those reactions are reasons why Clinton's remarks are exactly on target. It is hard for Mexico to make the case that it has its arms around the problem, when news of its third mayor to be killed in the past several weeks is breaking. It is hard when, as quoted in an excellent Los Angeles Times story on the subject, one senior U.S. immigration and customs official cites the fact that the Mexicans have "lost an ‘astronomical' number of police officers and soldiers." In short, it is hard for them to argue that everything is under control when it is clearly not.

Sometimes diplomacy is the art of varnishing unpleasant truths. But sometimes it is the art of stripping away the varnish. In this case it is the latter, because while the Calderon administration has struggled valiantly with this issue, they are losing ground -- and the worse things get, the more they go from being primarily a Mexican problem to being a North American problem. President Calderon may not like it, but this is already a political issue in the U.S. Simply shifting troops to our southern border will not be enough if pockets of Mexico become even more lawless, and in turn even more dangerous staging grounds for threats to the U.S.

Whether the crises in Mexican provinces -- locked in struggles with brutal gangs of drug dealers -- technically fulfills the definition of an insurgency is immaterial. In fact, Clinton's language was actually quite nuanced: "We face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, a drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency."

Sometimes just a word can be a wake-up call. In this case, if it is not one for the Mexicans -- whether for reasons of pride or denial -- it must be for the Obama team, who have from the beginning recognized that instability in Mexico -- for whatever reason -- is among the most serious, complex, and difficult to tackle threats the U.S. faces today.

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David Rothkopf

Washington musical chairs made easy

The Washington Post, like many Beltway watchers, took President Obama's statement that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would make a "great mayor of Chicago" as an acknowledgement that Emanuel is as good as gone from his administration -- and that the typical midterm game of musical chairs that enlivens the West Wing has begun.

I take the statement as something different. I take it as a personal request from the President to me to let him know what changes he needs to make after the November elections.

So, let's begin with replacing Rahm. Rumor has it that Emanuel himself has been mentioning Valerie Jarrett, among the president's closest confidantes, for the job. While being as simpatico with the president as Jarrett clearly is would be a big plus, the chief of staff job has a massively tough management component to it that would undercut Jarrett's ability to remain the vital sounding board for the President she has become. Better suited to the job would be two of the other names mentioned: Ron Klain, the vice president's chief of staff, and Tom Donilon, the deputy national security advisor. Both are excellent, smart and proven administrative masters. Tom Daschle, former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, has also been mentioned. He played a vital role in the president's campaign and would add an important capacity for Hill outreach to the mix.

The White House chief of staff job is probably the least understood, hardest and most important job in Washington that doesn't actually involve having a desk inside the Oval Office. At times, it has been the seat of men who were called the "deputy president." At others, the position has been a bureaucratic meat grinder that has eaten its occupants alive. My advice to the President is to bring in someone of stature who has a proven record of running things. While all the named candidates are individuals of real merit who deserve a prominent place in the administration, the right person for the job is Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania.

It is also speculated that David Axelrod will depart the White House after the election. Given that the President will be moving immediately into campaign mode and that he will want to have the best political talent actually in the campaign, it is probably not necessary that his position as senior advisor be filled. Some wonder if it would be a good place for Robert Gibbs, the current press secretary. Perhaps, especially if Gibbs were replaced by someone new behind the press room podium who is a little less defensive.

Gibbs was a soccer goalie in college so the defensive skills come naturally, but the best White House press secretaries are more like midfielders who can coax, weave, and generally charm the ball up the field as well as protecting the net. Gibbs did that better during the campaign, and it must be acknowledged it is a job that probably has a built-in term limit -- its occupants regularly need to be rotated out due to battle fatigue. But note that the President already has another advisor in his inner circle in addition to Axelrod, Jarrett, and Gibbs who has been so masterful that almost no one ever mentions his name despite his important and effective role: former Obama Senate Chief of Staff Pete Rouse.

The next most important slot to fill will be that currently held by Larry Summers. Now, Summers has not said he is leaving, and I am on record saying that any Democratic administration that can have Larry Summers in it should have Larry Summers in it. But the rumors surrounding his potential departure are growing deafening, and on top of that, he is probably not in the job to which he is ultimately best suited.

Running the National Economic Council requires an individual who is close to the president, has a well-developed economic world view, and can serve as an honest broker in an economic cabinet that is every bit the team of rivals the national security cabinet was touted to be. For whatever reason, the economic cabinet has some glaring weaknesses and Summers, for all his contributions and great gifts, is not seen as someone who invites or embraces alternative views easily.

In a previous piece, I suggested that Summers and Tim Geithner swap jobs. Summers has already proven he is well-suited to serve as treasury secretary and to be the strongest single voice in the economic cabinet, and Geithner has everything it takes to run the National Economic Council fairly and in a way that would embrace multiple perspectives. He also has the trust of the president.

The secret in such a mix however, would be to fill the other economic cabinet positions with people of comparable intellectual horsepower. One of them must be a business leader, filling a gaping hole in the current team in that area. So what about someone like Eric Schmidt of Google or Indra Nooyi of Pepsi at Commerce? And why not take former deputy U.S. Trade Representative Robert Hormats out of State and make him USTR Hormats?

Or Obama could give that job to a businessperson or government official who has some experience dealing with the big trade issues of our time -- such as those involving intellectual property or trying to break into the Chinese market. That might make Ambassador Jon Huntsman, currently our envoy in Beijing, and formerly a very good deputy USTR and governor of Utah, a perfect candidate. Admittedly, he might run for president as a Republican in 2016 -- but that should be seen as a plus for Obama, who is going to have to blaze new trails in bipartisanship to get anything done during the next six -- or two -- years.

And if Larry Summers leaves, Mr. President, do your best to try to make the rumor mill right for once and persuade Mike Bloomberg to become treasury secretary. From what I hear, Bloomberg doesn't want the job. But he has both the Wall Street and political chops to do an exceptional job in the office first held by another New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton.

Round out the economic cabinet then with more strength at the Council of Economic Advisors. Get a powerhouse and a dissenter, someone who will clash with other members of the team and give the President real choices. Bring back Joe Stiglitz, or get Jeffrey Sachs, or even Paul Krugman. Consensus is not the objective -- fighting to find the best ideas is. Creative ferment is healthy.

That's what was expected of the national security team and often, it is precisely what that team has delivered. But big changes are due on that side of the house as well, beginning with National Security Advisor Jim Jones. Jones was never a good fit for the job -- he wasn't close to the President, had no real feel for diplomacy, and was not hands-on enough in the process -- but his weaknesses were offset by the strength of the Clinton and Gates team in the two top jobs. But Gates is leaving, too, and while Clinton is clearly coming into her own as the rightfully acknowledged star of the cabinet, the national security leadership will need some real attention.

Some talk about Donilon to replace Jones, and he certainly has been an effective deputy. But the secret to a successful NSC is someone who can be the president's closest advisor, the master of complex processes, and an intellectual engine in his or her own right, to whom others look for leadership on the full range of security policy questions. That means it would be better to have someone who is acknowledged to be both an intellectual and a bureaucratic force to be reckoned with. The mix may change a little one way or another, but you need both components.

A controversial but sound choice from within the current NSC would be Dennis Ross, whose vast experience extends far beyond the Middle East issues with which he is most associated. Another controversial pick -- because he is a Bush-era appointee -- but someone who would do a terrific job is Richard Haass, currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And a dark horse -- and an excellent choice -- who has the trust of the President, knows the Hill, is a master budgeteer, has been White House chief of staff, and knows the intelligence side would be Leon Panetta.

Replacing Gates is tougher. Clinton could do the job, but shouldn't. She should stay right where she is, where she will flourish and serve the president well. Someday, Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy will be secretary, but I think now might be too soon (although she might warrant moving up to deputy secretary should the opportunity present itself). Some of the political candidates like Jack Reed present problems due to the electoral mix on the Hill and what creating vacancies in their seats might mean. So let me offer another long-shot, another out-of-left-field suggestion who would be a great addition to the team of rivals and whose experience is unequaled: Colin Powell. He's 73, but vital, and as a former secretary of state, national security advisor and chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- not to mention a figure respected globally and seen as above partisanship -- he is one of the very few people I can think of who would be a worthy successor to Gates, who will go down in history as one of America's very best secretaries of defense.

OK, that's it for now, Mr. President. I just thought that if I took care of these minor administrative issues for you, you could focus on the campaign. By the way, I am pretty sure the outcome in November is going to be better for the Democrats than all the pundits are predicting, which may make it a little easier for you to do all the recruiting you're going to have to do -- which looks like it could be quite a bit.

UPDATE: Apparently President Obama did not wait to read my blog before going ahead and appointing Austan Goolsbee chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. For the record, I also do not object to the appointment of Goolsbee except to the extent that it reminded me that I intended to mention him here but forgot to. He is a smart economist, has a strong, long-standing relationship with the president, does a mean stand-up act (I'm told), and will bring especially good communications skills to an economic team that needs them very badly. It's definitely a good hire.

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