POLITICS MARCH 4, 2009
The seventh floor of the U.S. State Department is a generally dreary place. Its employees roam hallways so long and confusing that they are color-coded for guidance. Fluorescent lights throw down a harsh hospital glare. But, to most State employees, the "real" seventh floor is a secure area, protected by armed guards and doors that require electronic keys, where the department's top staffers, including the secretary herself, spend their days. There, Hillary Clinton works from a gently lit, wood-paneled office adorned with portraits of her predecessors.
Another nearby office will be nearly as important: that of her soon-to-be chief of staff, Cheryl Mills. A dogged former White House lawyer and close Hillary confidante, Mills proved her fealty to the Clintons with a fiery 1999 House floor speech during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in which she hailed the president's compassion for African Americans like herself. In the late months of Hillary's 2008 bid for the White House, Mills quietly emerged as de facto campaign manager. "Cheryl is extraordinarily loyal to both Clintons," says a former campaign aide. She also has little time for anyone she thinks isn't serving the Clintons well. "She has a very direct personality," says the aide.
What she doesn't have is foreign policy experience--a reminder of how alien Hillary's hard-edged political machine is to the diplomatic realm of the State Department. That has some career State-watchers bracing for a culture clash, especially given that Mills is just one of several key members of Hillary's inner circle, or "Hillaryland," making the transition to Foggy Bottom. They include her longtime personal aide, Huma Abedin (now described as a "senior adviser"); her Senate press secretary, Philippe Reines; longtime speechwriter Lissa Muscatine; foreign policy adviser Andrew Shapiro; and scheduler Lona Valmoro. Even Hillary's close friend Maggie Williams, who joined her struggling presidential campaign in January of last year as a senior aide, has been vetting job applicants in recent weeks. To some, this influx echoes the Hindenburg disaster of Hillary's run for president, with its clashing egos, awful management, and endless tawdry leaks. "Given the way the campaign wound up, I think the question mark hanging over her head is whether the department will fall prey to the kinds of feuds and organizational paralysis that plagued the campaign," says the former campaign aide.
Considering the outsized personalities who have already joined Obama's diplomatic corps, this fear seems well-grounded. But Hillary has another, often-forgotten modus operandi on which she can fall back--that of her audacious 2000 run for Senate and her subsequent tenure on Capitol Hill, where her hard work and collegiality won near-unanimous accolades and endeared her to a skeptical institution. The question--not only for Hillary's legacy but for U.S. foreign policy--is which of these models she will bring to the seventh floor.
In theory, the secretary of state is a commanding figure uniquely situated to shape world events. The dynamic of the job, however, is often less like a Kissingerian chessboard and more like a game of Whack-a-Mole, in which the department struggles just to manage the crises of the day. Hillary Clinton lacks the lengthy foreign policy resume of secretaries like Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Madeleine Albright--who spent their pre-State Department lives focused on world affairs--but, like each of them, she is clearly lured by the possibility of proactively shaping U.S. foreign policy rather than frantically rushing from continent to continent wielding a diplomatic fire extinguisher.
That's why, well before she was sworn in, Hillary arranged to effectively outsource the immediate work on hotspots like the Middle East and Central Asia. In unpublished portions of a recent interview with The New York Times, released in full by the State Department, Clinton recounted telling Obama in "the very first conversation that I can recall" about the State Department job that she wanted to get "immediately moving on someone for the Middle East and someone for Afghanistan and Pakistan." That ultimately resulted in last month's appointments of George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as special envoys to those regions. The Obama-Clinton team is also expected to designate former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross for a similar role focused on Iran.
To some extent, this move has the virtue of necessity. "The idea that she can do all this by herself" is absurd anyway, argues a former top State Department official. But subcontracting the hotspots is about more than lightening Clinton's workload. It also enables Hillary to pick issues of her own, ones where she can take the initiative rather than constantly react to, say, the latest Taliban offensive or rocket attack from Gaza. "You don't want the secretary to have to get down and do the nitty-gritty, get bogged down in the details," says Jim Steinberg, Clinton's State Department deputy. This way, "she doesn't become such a prisoner of the crisis of the moment that she can't advance a long-term agenda." Steinberg said he had just emerged from a meeting with Clinton precisely along these lines. Outsiders agree that Hillary will be looking for a grand mission. "She needs to find a signature," argues one former senior State official from her husband's administration. "What this does is free Secretary Clinton up to deal with the issues that we have completely neglected," adds Nina Hachigian, a former aide on Bill Clinton's National Security Council now with the Center for American Progress.
Topping that list, says Hachigian, is America's relationship with Asia--which happens to be the first region Clinton chose to visit as secretary. Clinton has also complained publicly about the sway the Bush administration gave the Treasury Department to negotiate with China and Japan over currency and trade issues, and wants to reassert State's primacy. And she is certainly familiar with China. The foreign policy highlight of her White House years was a defiant 1995 speech on women's rights she delivered at an international conference in Beijing that targeted, among other things, the Chinese practice of killing baby girls.
Meanwhile, Steinberg, a Harvard and Yale Law School graduate who served as her husband's deputy national security adviser, worked extensively on U.S.-China relations during the Clinton presidency (and even has two adopted daughters from China). Her new assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs is expected to be Democratic foreign policy heavyweight Kurt Campbell, whose long resume underscores the post's importance, and who recently co-authored a book with Steinberg. And the head of the department's Office of Policy Planning--a kind of in-house think tank designed for the long view--is Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who spent a year's sabbatical based in Shanghai and touring through Asia. Last May, Slaughter told Newsweek that "the biggest overall challenge [facing the United States] is managing the rise of Asia."
Hillary's big-think could extend beyond the regional to the global. Strobe Talbott, a longtime Clinton friend and former number-two at State, predicts an unprecedented focus on development programs. One of Hillary's pet causes as First Lady, after all, was pushing so-called "micro-loans" for Third World entrepreneurs. "Think of her slogan for the world being a variation on It Takes a Village," Talbott says. "Every time she says 'diplomacy,' she says 'and development.'" Talbott says Hillary is likely to elevate the oft-neglected posts of undersecretary for democracy and global affairs and undersecretary for economic affairs (which will be filled by economist Lael Brainard--who, illustrating the incestuous world of foreign policy mandarins, is Campbell's wife). "She has given a lot of thought to those two in particular," Talbott says, adding that Clinton will push for a new State focus on "sustainable development, global public health, the environment, and empowerment of women," a far cry from crisis management.
Subcontracting crises to focus on long-term strategy has considerable appeal. But it also brings real risks. The number of outsized personalities within the State Department, as well as the number of strong wills outside it with whom she will have to coordinate, will require Hillary to be a diplomat among the diplomats.
Already, there has been internal friction. Clinton's team ruffled feathers last month when it evicted the department's senior Foreign Service officer and number-three official, Bill Burns, from his offices to make room for Hillary's deputy secretary for management, Jack Lew. (Burns was moved down the seventh-floor hallway, farther from Clinton's door, according to a Foreign Policy magazine blog.) Then there was the shabby treatment of retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who says he was promised the post of U.S. ambassador to Iraq, only to discover that the job would instead go to Christopher Hill, the Bush administration's lead North Korea negotiator. The Foreign Service, meanwhile, saw the Mitchell and Holbrooke appointments as a slight--a suggestion that career diplomats are not up to the job. "The message she wants to send is that diplomacy's back," says one former top Clinton administration foreign policy hand. "But the message that's received is, 'We're not good enough to do the hard stuff.'"
Hillary doesn't need additional adversaries. She is already said to resent Susan Rice, a top Obama campaign foreign policy adviser who is now ambassador to the United Nations. Rice was among the first ex-Clintonites to support Obama, she harshly criticized Hillary's Iraq war vote, and she accused her of "manipulat[ing] the truth" during the campaign. Obama has elevated the U.N. ambassador post to cabinet rank, creating another power center in a team already awash with them. And, while some interpreted Rice's job as a kind of exile to New York, she still has deep roots in Washington, where her children are in school and her husband, Ian Cameron, is executive producer of ABC's "This Week." "That's ripe for conflict" with Clinton, warns a former Bush State Department official.
The role of Dennis Ross could also cause tension. During the early primaries, Ross straddled the fence between Clinton and Obama. But he quickly emerged as a top Obama adviser last summer, suggesting to some Clintonites that he'd been less neutral than he appeared. As a result, Ross felt that "he wouldn't really be welcome in Hillaryland," says one source familiar with the situation. After the election, Ross and James Jones, Obama's pick to run the National Security Council, initially discussed a White House job coordinating all U.S. policy from the Middle East to South Asia. According to this version of events, supported by a second source with close State Department contacts, Clinton balked at seeing Ross with so much authority over her department's work and brought him to State. With other envoys assigned to the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan, Ross will now focus on Iran, but, given the deep connection between Iran and Israel policy, it's unclear how he will coordinate with Mitchell. From another direction, meanwhile, Holbrooke is now considering a diplomatic approach to Iran to deal with neighboring Afghanistan's opium problem. "How do those Venn diagrams overlap?" wonders one close observer of Middle East politics.
The hard-charging Holbrooke remains the biggest question mark. Asked how Holbrooke managed to bargain the bullying Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic into a Balkan peace deal, Bill Clinton once replied: "Because he has the same character as Milosevic." Holbrooke has longed to be secretary of state for decades, and probably would have achieved his dream if Al Gore, John Kerry, or Hillary herself had been elected president. Thus, it's not hard to imagine him second-guessing Hillary, his student for many years. As Clinton herself told The New York Times last week: "Occasionally he has to be, you know, brought down to earth and reined in."
Holbrooke's assertiveness risks other potential clashes. He has never worked closely, for instance, with General David Petraeus, who now oversees the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan. The two egos were on display at a panel during last weekend's Munich security conference, where Petraeus cracked wise about his new partnership: "You know, it's every commander's dream to have an ambassadorial wingman who is described by journalists with nicknames like 'The Bulldozer.'" Then there's Vice President Joe Biden. The two men, while outwardly friendly, have been rivals for years. "Neither would mind if the other disappeared," says a person who has worked closely with one of them. Finally, there is Holbrooke's uncertain relationship with Obama himself. For much of the 2008 campaign Holbrooke was a bete noire in the Obama camp--a foe of Obama's top campaign foreign policy adviser, Anthony Lake, and a symbol to many of the ill-advised enthusiasm of Washington Democrats for the Iraq invasion. It was only in late summer that Holbrooke, through what one associate calls "a lot of lobbying," was accepted into the fold. Asked about the state of Holbrooke's relationship with the president, his friend Les Gelb says only, "I think it's coming."
When Hillary was unable to manage conflicting egos and power centers within her campaign, the result was confusion and even embarrassment. The outcome can be similar when top bureaucrats fight. "Stovepiping" among rivals can lead to incomplete or bad information and reveal to foreign capitals that the United States is not speaking with one voice. You don't want, to take a hypothetical example, Petraeus sending signals of support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai while Holbrooke is signaling that Karzai must go. One source recalls how a lack of coordination within Bill Clinton's Middle East team during the 2000 Camp David accords meant that other Arab leaders had not been briefed properly when Clinton needed to call them with urgent requests to help Yasir Arafat accept a peace deal. "Stovepiping is a historical curse of the place," says Strobe Talbott, who is optimistic that Hillary can "exorcise that curse" from State.
Fortunately, there are signs that Hillary is paying better attention to management principles than she did when running for president. Much as after her arrival in the Senate, she has been working hard to familiarize herself with the culture of her new institutional home. "She has been systematically calling people who have direct, and relatively recent, experience in the place and really drilling down on all kinds of questions--including how to make sure that various parts of the department are integrated," says one person with firsthand knowledge of that process. Since taking the job, Clinton has met or spoken with every living secretary of state. One advantage is her very close friendship with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who has schooled Hillary in Foggy Bottom's machinations since the late 1990s, and who has recently been counseling her on the department's mores.
Hillary's choice of Steinberg, who has caused precious little controversy and made few enemies during his long career in the Democratic foreign policy establishment, is also reassuring. He is widely viewed as a hardworking and reliable honest broker. According to Hachigian, who served as his special assistant at the NSC in the late '90s, Steinberg "has just an uncanny ability to strike at the heart of a national security issue--but also to understand all the politics that go into it--how the media is going to respond, Congress and the partisan politics of the Hill, bureaucratic infighting."
Indeed, Steinberg comes well-armed to challenges posed by rivalries within a foreign policy team. In January, he and Kurt Campbell published a book, Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power, which warns against a reliance on "all-stars"--high-profile figures with no inherent loyalty to the president. "[T]heir lack of a previous working relationship with the candidate and an unknown level of commitment to the president-elect's programs means that the decision to appoint them is something of a gamble," they write. "At best, they have been marginalized or ignored in the decision-making process"--Colin Powell is cited here--and "at worst they have caused significant disruption as a result of being seen as not team players (Alexander Haig, Donald Rumsfeld)." Under Steinberg's definition, Hillary would certainly qualify as a potentially disruptive "all-star." One hopes that his study of the question will help him to maneuver Hillary away from "significant disruption." (For the record, Steinberg calls Clinton "a fabulous choice" who brings a rare mix of communications, political, and policy chops to the job. "That trifecta of skills is very rare," he says.)
What's more, Hillary has taken the unusual step of appointing a second deputy, Jack Lew, to focus explicitly on management. Lew, a Queens native and Harvard grad, is a former Clinton White House budget director--an important qualification for a woman whose primary campaign ran out of cash in February. Lew will be charged with battling Congress to win more budget authority for the State Department and also with keeping an eye on the department's internal workings. Says one friend, "He's extraordinarily competent and even-tempered and a kind of anchoring figure--someone who, if there were some turbulence among the key players, would be able to enforce a certain amount of discipline and serenity."
Serenity may be too ambitious a goal, but one former senior Clinton administration foreign policy official jokes that Hillary's delegation of crisis hotspots will at least enable her to spend more time in the Washington loop. "Colin Powell didn't travel much, because he said every time he went out of town Cheney and Rumsfeld would launch some new policy initiative," the former official laughs. Thus, you'll typically be able to find the secretary working hard on the seventh floor. Talk to Cheryl Mills for an appointment.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.