Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 November 2008

The Transcendent Need for Real Talent at State


[For a more recent comment on Bill Richardson, click here. For a later comment on the “vetting” process, click here.]

It’s hard to recall now, but Secretary of State was once the second most important post in our entire executive branch. That was before Dick Cheney filled a vacuum of brains, vision and power and engineered his bloodless palace coup. That was before we replaced diplomacy based on evidence and knowledge of others’ national interests with reflexive resort to military power. That was before State became a parade ground for domestic identity politics.

The paradigm—and one of the best secretaries ever—was former general George Marshall. Before anyone else, he saw how a peaceful, prosperous Europe could rise from the ashes of history’s most disastrous conflict. The European Union is his legacy.

I am too young to have seen George Marshall in action. But I know two things about him. First, he was a tough cookie. He insisted that FDR address him as “Mr. Marshall” and show respect for his military service, talent, and office. Marshall could say “no” to the twentieth century’s greatest political figure and a man whom the nation rightly revered as a redeeming deity.

Much more important, George Marshall had strategic vision. Our nation had just endured a hideous war thrust upon us by evil empires. It would have been easy to lapse into isolationism or a punitive state of mind, like the one that made such a mess of the Armistice after World War I. Instead, acting on Marshall’s vision, we rebuilt Europe and Japan with cultural delicacy, diplomatic skill, and huge doses of social and physical engineering.

The results were so spectacular that today we take them for granted. Once a millennial battleground of warring tribes, Europe is now the world’s largest (in population) peaceful, prosperous, and fully modern democratic society. Once the playground of shoguns and feudal-age militarism, Japan is now a peaceful, modern, democratic nation with the world’s second-largest national economy.

That was a secretary of state! We have not seen George Marshall’s like again. Perhaps we never will. But we have seen extraordinary talent in other forms.

Whatever you may think about his Metternichian approach to international relations, Henry Kissinger in his prime was an impressive strategic thinker. So was (and is) Zbigniew Brzezinski, who as national security advisor overshadowed his secretary of state in both intelligence and vision. When you listened to either of these men (or both!) discuss world affairs, your invariable reaction was “Wow, what intelligence! What strategic vision!” Both men could think many moves ahead in the global game of chess.

Colin Powell provided another model for a good secretary. Lacking Kissinger’s or Brzezinski’s academic glitz, he has extraordinary personal skill and unerring judgment. As I’ve outlined in another post, he made the right calls on Gulf I, our current war in Iraq, the Chinese spy-plane crisis, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only that: he made them in the face of conventional wisdom and formidable opposition. Powell also is a natural diplomat, with clear and precise articulation, a soft voice, a pleasing personality and inveterate understatement.

In the end, Cheney’s palace coup, Rumsfeld’s idiocy, and the cluelessness of our commander in chief neutered Powell’s native talent. His soldierly unwillingness to stand up to Dubya didn’t help. But you wonder what his superb judgment and talent for diplomacy could have achieved in an administration that recognized and exploited them.

Does Hillary Clinton or John Kerry measure up? Please. Clinton has never shown the slightest trace of strategic vision in anything but political campaigning. She has shown consistently poor judgment on international affairs. She lost the primary campaign—and quite rightly so—because her domestic political “vision” degenerated into gender politics, personal braggadocio, racial innuendo and slime. She let the Rove clones in her campaign take over her mind. John Kerry lost to Dubya because he never showed any vision at all, strategic or otherwise. And his stiff New Englander’s personality made enemies of people who should have been his friends.

Equally important, neither Clinton nor Kerry has shown any special understanding of foreign cultures. The last thing we need now is another good old American pol barging into the international arena as if it were just another Senate arm-twisting session.

To appoint either of these deeply flawed domestic pols as secretary of state at this critical stage in our history would be a grave error of judgment unworthy of President-Elect Obama.

So whom should Obama appoint? We may not have another George Marshall waiting in the wings. But in a nation of 300 million people, we should be able to find someone as talented as Kissinger, Brzezinski, or Powell. Perhaps Powell himself could be persuaded to serve, at least for an extended transition period, despite his disavowal on Meet the Press.

Senator Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) also has promise. He has shown independent strategic vision on Iraq and energy policy. He has a thoughtful, low-profile, understated personality, and he may have a natural talent for diplomacy. He also has experience with international negotiations involving arms and nuclear nonproliferation. I don’t know enough about him to make a strong recommendation, but he is certainly someone who should be vetted. Anyone who could break the lemming-like Republican lock-step has independent judgment worthy of respect.

If we cannot find someone with strategic vision and international training or experience, we might seek yet another model for a successful executive-State partnership. Barack Obama himself has immense strategic vision. That’s why he’s President-Elect. Joe Biden has immense experience in international affairs. That’s why he’s Vice President-Elect.

Maybe we can get by with an experienced, understated diplomatic negotiator like Richard Holbooke or Christopher Hill. President Obama could oversee the strategic vision. Vice President Biden could prefect it and temper it with experience (in private, to avoid gaffes). Then Holbrooke or Hill could implement the collaborative vision with a low profile, out of the public limelight, using much-honed negotiating skill.

But whatever happens, we have to change the approach to State that we’ve taken for the last two decades. Our military is thin and overstretched. Our economy is on the ropes. If we are to regain our influence in world affairs in the near future, we must make diplomacy a serious business again. We cannot continue to use it as a showcase for domestic identity politics.

That means finding the best talent in our entire nation of 300 million people, whatever it takes and however surprising the appointment might be—even a middle-aged, white male! It doesn’t mean rewarding political supporters or political celebrities who have never demonstrated the slightest strategic vision or talent for diplomacy. The office of Secretary of State is not a sinecure or a political plum. It’s a real job.

P.S. Bill Richardson. New Mexico Governor and erstwhile presidential candidate Bill Richardson also has been mentioned for State. He has a pleasing, low-key personality and a natural talent for diplomacy. He served as our United Nations ambassador for two years and helped in discussions with North Korea. He grew up partly in Mexico and has deep bicultural roots in the Hispanic community.

So Richardson may have half the equation—the half that relates to diplomatic talent and understanding of foreign cultures. But he showed little evidence of strategic vision during the long presidential primary campaign, let alone the intelligence or accurate, independent judgment of Kissinger, Brzezinski or Powell. All his substantive views seemed echoes of other candidates’.

No one can predict what challenges the next Secretary of State may face. So strategic vision and original strategic thinking are the sine qua non. Senator Lugar’s greater strategic vision easily trumps Governor Richardson’s edge in diplomatic experience.

We can and should do better than Richardson. But he would be a better choice than either Clinton or Kerry, who lack both diplomatic talent and strategic vision.

P.P.S. The “Vetting” Process: Aggrandizing Trivia. If you want to understand how lawyers and “gotcha!” political operatives like Karl Rove are destroying our nation, you need look no further than the “vetting” process for the Obama Administration’s political appointees, as described in today’s Washington Post.

We are speaking here of the great offices, beginning with Secretary of State, that will round out our top leadership team. The executive branch is a huge and unwieldy organization. No one—not even someone as talented as Obama—can run it all alone. The key appointments announced in the next few weeks will make or break the Obama Administration and perhaps our nation.

So what are the monstrous “vetting” teams focusing on? Tax returns, unreported gifts above $50, proper treatment of domestic workers, and youthful indiscretions like smoking marijuana. All that effort spent on trivia would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

Take the secretary of state, for example. In the foregoing essay, I boiled down that post’s key qualifications to two: diplomatic ability and strategic vision. But two other personal characteristics also matter.

First, a Secretary of State must have intimate, intuitive knowledge of foreign cultures. He or she must understand, deep in the bones, that foreigners play by different rules.

Failure to “get” that point led to our defeat in Vietnam and the present Iraqi quagmire. We can’t let that sort of thing happen again. No matter how capable on his or her home turf, a good ol’ American pol has no valid credit in the international arena.

Second, a good Secretary of State must have fully independent judgment and be able to command the president’s attention. He or she must have enough integrity and independent political power to force a showdown, resign in protest with equanimity, or at least threaten to resign and go public on an issue of sufficient importance.

So these are the sine qua non for State: (1) diplomatic talent; (2) strategic vision; (3) deep, personal understanding of the foreignness of foreign cultures; and (4) rock-hard independence and personal integrity. Next to them, the “gotchas” on which the vetting teams are focusing are fluff in the wind.

Barack Obama is President-Elect in large measure because he has the strategic vision and sense of perspective that all the other candidates lacked. We haven’t seen his kind of leadership in a long, long time.

But he is only one man. He can’t attend to all the details himself. Nor can he respond to every crisis personally and immediately.

So we, the people, can only hope and pray that his so-called “vetting” team has the skill and perspective to weigh what’s really important in preparing the short lists for his review. Woe unto us if we select the rest of our top leadership based on who has the fewest peccadilloes.


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