Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Will Obama have Hillary's back?

As most reports point to the HRC nomination moving ahead, Thomas Friedman, writing in today's New York Times, raises an interesting question: will President Obama have Hillary's back? That is, will Secretary Clinton be -- and be perceived to be -- closely in synch with the President so that foreign officials with whom she treats will consider her word to be as good as the President's? Friedman points out that the most successful Secretaries of State in recent decades, such as Henry Kissinger and James Baker, enjoyed the kind of close relationship with their Presidents that lent them clear authority.

I noted in earlier posts that a major problem with Mrs. Clinton at State would be her ability, as a leading politician with a national political base and a global reputation to march to her own tune and create internal conflict for Obama. I take Freidman's point seriously, too. Other nations' leaders won't lomg put faith in what the Secretary says, if they are not convinced she speaks for the White House.

But Friedman presses the matter too far. A Secretary of State cannot be a cipher or a mere puppet regurgitating her master's words. Men like Kissinger and Baker (and one might add George Marshall, Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles) were known to influence their Presidents. Their views carried great weight with the White House and their Cabinet colleagues. Foreign officials might have thought, if we can persuade Acheson/Kissinger/et al., he'll carry the day with his principal. And they would have been orrect, because these Secretaries had major influence in shaping US policies.

Which brings us back to whether Mrs. Clinton, the politician who plainly would wish to wield that kind of policy influence, will manage things so as to advance President Obama's agenda and avoid conflict. It's not a question to which there is an obvious answer.

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