So, after yesterday, there appears to be a little more clarity about who's gonna be doing what on Barack Obama's second term foreign policy team. If the latest reports can be trusted:
1) Susan Rice took herself out of the running for Secretary of State, but it looks like she'll be staying on as U.N. Ambassador, with a potential move to National Security Advisor at some point in the second term.
2) John Kerry is now the frontrunner to be Secretary of State
3) Chuck Hagel is now the frontrunner to be Secretary of Defense
4) Tom Donilon is staying on as National Security Advisor
5) CIA will go to either acting ditector Michael Morrell or deputy NSC advisor John Brennan.
My thoughts on these developments:
A) As someone with very little inside-the-Beltway knowledge, the Susan Rice denouement still raises more questions than it answers. In particular: i) Why was Benghazi such a big deal when she had zero operational authority and in no way lied when she appeared on the Sunday talk shows in September; ii) What the hell did she do to alienate Susan Collins (which appears to have been the pivotal moment)? iii) Why didn't the Obama White House offer up a full-throated defense of Rice or tell her to shut the hell up? Why the squishy, tepid support? iv) What was it about Rice that prompted so much bipartisan backbiting?
B) The changing norms of the Senate suggest the disturbing possibility that the only cabinet nominees who can sail through are.... former Senators. This is bad, bad, bad, bad, and bad for foreign policy. Cabinet officers are administrators and managers. Most senators haven't managed anything bigger than a legislative office. This isn't to say that all of them will do a bad job... but cofidence is not high. Narrowing the candidate pool like this harms the national interest.
C) If Chuck Hagel gets the nomination, it's gonna be one hell of a test of the Israel Lobby thesis. Eli Lake and Stephen Walt don't agree on much, but they do agree that Hagel is not really viewed as a friend of Israel... or at least Israeli uber-hawks. Hagel's overall foreign policy expertise/competence isn't a question, and as a former GOP senator it's going to be tough to make this a partisan issue. So... this is really an ideal test of the power of the so-called Israel Lobby. If AIPAC et al either don't oppose the nomination or oppose it and lose, that's a data point against Walt and Mearsheimer. If they oppose it and Hagel is withdrawn/goes down, it would be tough to deny that the power of AIPAC wasn't the crucial factor. As a social scientist, let me just say... pass the popcorn.
D) Actually, come to think of it, there is one other group that would likely oppose a Hagel nomination. Democratic policy defense wonks won't be thrilled with Hagel -- because it means one of their own won't get the job. If Hagel gets the nomination, then three of the last four Secretaries of Defense under a Democratic administration will have been Republicans. At a time when Democrats are acquiring a foreign policy/national security advantage over the GOP, this is not the best signal of party competency on defense matters. That said, a Hagel nomination would also be evidence that the GOP has pretty much shed all of the realists from its foreign policy team.
E) Hey, remember when the Secretary of the Treasury and the U.S. Trade Representative were significant foreign policy positions? Good times. Foreign economic policy got the short end of the foreign policy stick during Obama's first term -- it would be peachy if that changed. Wouldn't it be awesome if these positions got some nominees with political juice and the ability to move an ambitious foreign economic policy agenda through the system?
What do you think?