After Hillary: Choosing America’s Next Top Diplomat
Image Credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza

After Hillary: Choosing America’s Next Top Diplomat

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Having won reelection, one of the more immediate decisions facing President Obama is who to name as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as secretary of state, given Clinton’s insistence she will not continue on for a second term.

Pundits have been speculating about Clinton’s potential successor for months now. Among the early favorites was Susan Rice, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a cabinet-level position in the Obama administration. As UN Ambassador, Rice has been the administration’s point person on difficult negotiations with Russia and China over issues ranging from sanctioning Iran, authorizing military force in Libya, and condemning Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown in Syria. Her stature within the administration rose in the wake of the Arab Spring as the president embraced a more idealist foreign policy, which Rice is a strong proponent of.

Nevertheless, Rice’s chances of getting the nomination may have been spoiled after she was called upon to give one of the administration’s first post-mortems on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which she portrayed it as an organic uprising inspired by protests in Cairo over an anti-Islamic film that was made in the United States. Although she was simply relaying the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies at the time, she has since come under relentless fire from Republican critics of the administration’s handling of the situation, who are almost certain to continue raising the issue in Congress in the months ahead. With other contentious issues to deal with, most notably the fiscal cliff, it’s unlikely that the administration will welcome the partisan brawl that Rice’s nomination would invite. That being said, there have been reports that current and former administration officials still consider her the leading candidate to replace Clinton.

Another top contender for the position is Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, currently the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry has long coveted the top position at the State Department and was considered for the position when Obama was first elected. Since being passed over in favor of Clinton, Kerry has continued to make his case by serving as the president’s unofficial envoy to foreign leaders on multiple occasions. This has led him to establish a good relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani officials, which would prove valuable as the administration continues to negotiate the terms of the U.S.-Afghan relationship after the 2014 withdrawal.

Still, nominating Kerry is not without its drawbacks. To begin with, foreign policy circles might take issue with the fact that Kerry has been wrong on just about every major foreign policy issue over the past two decades, from his opposition to the first Gulf War and his support of the second one, to his opposition of the Iraq Surge and his support of the Afghan one. This track record hardly inspires confidence in the advice he would give to president.

Most issues plaguing Kerry’s bid for the top State Department post are political, however. Although a less polarizing figure than Susan Rice, Kerry is certainly a partisan and is strongly identified with the Democratic Party, having been its presidential candidate in the 2004 election. Furthermore, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Kerry might be more valuable to the administration as an ally on Capitol Hill, especially as the number of Congress members with competency in foreign policy matters dwindles. Most compelling, as Josh Rogin of The Cable has noted, nominating Kerry would force a special election in Massachusetts to fill his seat in the Senate. With Elizabeth Warren having just defeated Republican incumbent, Scott Brown, for Massachusetts’s junior senate seat, Brown would be well positioned to prevail in a snap election in that state.

Although there are other qualified candidates from the Democratic Party, including Obama’s current National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, one shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the administration will reach across the aisle in selecting a suitable candidate. After all, President Obama retained his predecessor’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, after the 2008 election, and by all accounts was satisfied with the counsel he received. With Obama hoping to avoid the partisan gridlock that characterized the last two years of his first term, nominating a Republican to a cabinet position would be an early gesture to the other side. It would also presumably make for a smooth confirmation process, an important consideration given the necessity of focusing on more pressing matters like the fiscal cliff. And, given the broad consensus between the parties on foreign policy issues, it would make far more sense to nominate a Republican for a foreign policy cabinet position than a domestic one.

Should the administration choose to go this route, few Republicans would be as suitable as Richard Lugar, the Indiana Senator who lost his primary to a Tea Party upstart (who then lost in the general election to the Democratic candidate). In his 36 years in the Senate, Lugar has amassed an unparalleled record on reaching across the aisle, and is emblematic of the kind of bipartisan spirit the administration will be seeking to project in its second term. His relationships on the Hill might also help shield the administration from the worst of the attacks over its handling of the Benghazi attacks. And while Lugar has often been at odds with his party in recent years, Republicans would be loathed to condemn him lest they alienate more of the centrist Republicans they desperately need to remain a viable national party.

As the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and its former chairman twice over, Lugar also has extensive experience on a broad range of foreign policy issues. He’d be a particularly strong asset in reviving the nuclear security agreement with Russia, having co-authored the original bill as a Senator, while also possessing the necessary expertise on nuclear matters to push forward on a new arms control agreement with Moscow. Lugar also partnered with John Kerry in drafting a bill to drastically increase non-military aid to Pakistan, and has consistently supported the administration’s Iran policy. It bears noting that he is deeply involved in the Asia-Pacific, having just visited the region at the end of October during which time he met with leaders like Philippines President Benigno Aquino. He also didn’t hide his displeasure with Mitt Romney’s pledge to label China a currency manipulator.

Lugar is not without his own drawbacks, however, starting with the fact that he is eighty years young. More importantly, he lacks the “star power” of many recent secretaries of state, including Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton. In this sense, as secretary of state he would be a less suitable fill-in for the president in important forums that the president couldn’t attend, such as this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. On the other hand, given the need for delicate negotiations with countries like Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan, and many others, a less iconic figure would have its own advantages.

In any case, no suitable candidate can equal Clinton in personality, and for this reason and countless others, she will be duly missed in the second half of Obama’s presidency.

Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

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