Obama Names Clinton Sec. of State, Keeps Gates as Defense Secretary

William Arkin
Military Affairs Analyst
Monday, December 1, 2008 2:30 PM

President-elect Barack Obama continued to fill out his cabinet today, naming Sen. Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State and retaining Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Military affairs analyst William Arkin was online Monday, Dec. 1 at 2:30 p.m. ET to take your questions about the appointments.

A transcript follows.

William Arkin, a former Army intelligence analyst and consultant, has written extensively about military affairs, including several books on the topic. He's been a long-time contributor to the washingtonpost.com, and he is one of the moderator's of the Planet War discussion group.


William Arkin: Hello all. So it's Jones, Clinton, and Gates, a pick probably comforting to Washington insiders but puzzling to the people who voted for Obama. I suppose the big question will be whether or not this fancy dance will pay off. One, by allowing Obama to focus on the economy and "neutralize" national security; and two, by allowing a new national security policy to develop under capable hands. Gates and Jones certainly fit the latter description; I think Clinton's appointment is a bit of a gimmick. We'll see whether the President will be happy sharing the stage with the second couple, and whether the former First Lady has a clue about foreign policy.


Washington, D.C.: Have they announced the deputies for the big national security appointments announced today? I'd heard that Donilon was going to be Jones' deputy; Steinberg Clinton's; and maybe Danzig Gates'. But I haven't heard anything today. Do we know yet?

William Arkin: No deputies were formally announced but it appears that Richard Danzig is headed for the Pentagon and Steinberg is indeed head for State. I imagine that the Obama "camp" must be demoralized -- first for siding with Obama from the beginning and second for being dissed as not be good enough or enough of a celebrity to be on the A Team. Susan Rice, Obama's loyal advisor, looked tired and over-shadowed in today's announcement. I would have preferred to see her at the NSC.


Bellingham, Wash.: Any hope for a spot in the cabinet or elsewhere for Sen. Chuck Hagel? I was hoping he'd land SoS, or SoD, especially after reading his realistic/truthful take on the Iraq "surge" in the New Yorker's recent profile of the Senator. (After his July trip to Iraq with Obama, Hagel pointed out that the "surge" is a farce, that no American can or would go anywhere without a convoy and a flak jacket). I am a life-long lefty Dem and Obama supporter and feel Hagel would be a great addition.

William Arkin: Well at least for now, the big spots, with the exception of Director of National Intelligence and CIA are filled, so I suppose Hagel is out. But I can't imagine Gates for long at the Pentagon, particularly if all of his deputies are Obama people (read Democrats). On the other hand, maybe Gates will prove to be the perfect bipartisan Washington hand and will do Obama's bidding with aplumb.


Anonymous: How much is the massacre in Mumbai going to affect Sec. Gates's plans in the short-term?

William Arkin: I don't think Mumbai is going to derail anything. I'm sorry to say, but these kind of crises are occurring everyday. The more important question is Pakistan's involvement and the long term prospects for the refocus to Afghanistan that Obama promises.


VA: Well, Susan Rice offended a lot of FSO old hands at the African bureau. Plus she did nothing during Rwanda. Like John Pondergast.

William Arkin: There's gossip about everyone, and certainly Sen. Clinton will have her share. But I think Obama's picks are more about politics and celebrity (and are a strange swipe at Democratic expertise and competence) than about reputations.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think the new President will tell Cngressman Waxman to drop his 100-plus investigations of the Bush administration? His demands will occupy the new people.

William Arkin: If President Obama is going to focus on the economy, some good old fashioned Congressional howling about the Bush administration's foreign policy will be useful for diversion. That is, unless Gates becomes a target, or Gates is made to "testify" about the mess he inherited from Rumsfeld, certainly an uncomfortable position.


William Arkin: Overall, I'd say I'm disappointed all around. On Clinton, because it is not her strong card and I don't necessarily see her as a subordinate of the president. On Gates because I would prefer to see an Obama person implement the president's Iraq plan and begin a bigger clean-up at the Pentagon. And on Jones, where I think a closer confidante is required.


Maryland: So the new UN ambassador is also a Cabinet member. Would that conflict with Secretary Clinton? She does outrank her, right?

William Arkin: The U.N. Ambassador has been a cabinet member for some time, and as for precedence, the Secretary of State is first. The real question is whether Mrs. Clinton outranks Obama! Or at least her husband. What a strange choice for the president-elect.


A Gimmick?: What is it about the president-elect's recognition of Sen. Clinton's tenacity, intellect and world renown is gimmicky? A gimmick would have been naming Caroline Kennedy as the secretary of state. At least with the Clinton pick, we get someone who has witnessed and practiced the art and science of crafting policy and diplomacy. Give our new leadership team a chance to succeed before judging the effort as a failure.

William Arkin: The proof is always in the pudding, and we once hailed Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell as the national security dream team.


Virginia: Are feminists happy about Clinton?

William Arkin: Well, I can't imagine that they wouldn't be, with Clinton and Rice appointments. But then, I wouldn't necessarily count feminists as an important constituency in national security.


MD: Any chances that Susan Powers could be given a lasting role in the State Department under Clinton?

William Arkin: Samantha Powers of Harvard is listed on the State Department transition team, but I don't see her in government. First because she isn't a Clintonista, and second because she not an "executive" type. Maybe as a counselor at the NSC, but I doubt it at State in an undersecretary position.


Oviedo, Fla. : Hillary Clinton a "gimmick?" Did you not get the memo - you are supposed to use the terms "baggage" and "drama." These tedious Hillary swipes bore me. The tens of millions of us who voted for her are thrilled - she is more of a co- president. Joe who?? Glad all those Hilary haters chanting at the campaign rallies are forced to shut up. That change business was blather for college kids. Hillary - the world awaits! Bring Bill, we need him too.

William Arkin: If Hillary represents change and she can competently lead a groaning and far-flung bureaucracy, more power to her. I get your point on all the people who "voted" for Hillary, but that's the point. This job requires expertise and management skills, not just popularity. I would prefer an experienced foreign policy operative or at least a theorist who has an identifiable national security idea.


Anonymous: How long do you see Gates holding on to the job?

William Arkin: Gates has served for two year already and I imagine he would like to see Iraq through to the end. My guess is another two years. Whether this will sit well with the Democratic party core, and whether Gates will be able to make nice with the new Congress will determine how well he does. And of course, whether he can implement the president's vision, which for now is a bit muddled.


Obamala, ND: Hmmmm.... I'm a long-time Obama supporter and I'm (contrary to your assumption) disappointed or puzzled by these picks. Projecting much?

William Arkin: Though the economy has taken center stage, part of the justification for Gates staying on is that we are "at war." Most Americans still oppose the war in Iraq and a majority voted for Obama to end it. Maybe Gates can shift that easily, but it seems a bit risky on Obama's part. On the other hand, if Iraq go sour again, people will blame Gates first and that's a comfortable position for the new president.


Alexandria, Va.: Okay, we get it...you don't want Hillary in the cabinet. Well, a lot of us do, so get over it. Besides, when we voted for change, we meant anyone but Bush/McCain. I think the new team is terrific so before you decide that they will fail, why not give them a chance to succeed!

William Arkin: I'm not saying they will fail. And I would have preferred to see Hillary in a cabinet job that tracks more with her expertise.


Anonymous: Clearly, it's not a complete shock that there would be violence in India, but I don't think most people were ready for something of this magnitude. The Obama team had enough to handle even before the attacks. Are there other places we aren't hearing about that they should be paying attention to?

William Arkin: Somalia has been in the news a lot, and Lebanon is receiving increasing U.S. military assistance. And there's always Sudan and Congo. I think that the Asian subcontinent, particularly if Pakistan is implicated in India, is still the hottest spot: a confluence of politics, religions, nuclear weapons, American military presence, etc. Yes the new president will have his hands full. But remember, Bush is president for another two months.


Rolla, Mo.: It is about time that the United States has a brillant person in the position of secretary of state. Hillary is qualified and will be a real asset to the Oobama presidency. I think they will make a good team, along with other excellent choices for the presidental cabinet. I am anticipating that the result of careful and knowledgeable selections by President-elect Obama will continue during his presidency.

William Arkin: Nothing in my comments are meant to disparage the Senator. I just would prefer to see someone with more experience on the world stage as the Secretary of State. It has nothing to do with her dynamism or popularity. I do take the appointment though as a statement by the President-elect that he did not look around a see a super-star in the foreign policy "establishment" to serve as his Secretary. That is a sobering assessment, if true.


Woodbridge, Va.: My response to the Clintonista in Oviedo, Fla., is that those of us who contributed to and voted for Obama in the primaries in large part to prevent a Clinton Restoration are feeling like chumps for thinking that Obama was actually interested in change, at least on the foreign policy front.

The one thing to keep in mind, however, is that unlike the VP, the secretary of state can actually be fired by the president. So that should limit the freelancing.

William Arkin: I hope, for America's sake, that it doesn't come to firing, that Obama has a clear vision and Clinton will carry it out. But doesn't that in itself sound funny? I was never a huge Powell supporter either though, and near everyone hailed him as the perfect pick. So we will have to wait and see.


San Diego, Calif.: Who do you think would have been a better pick for secretary of state? Kerry? Richardson? Someone else?

William Arkin: I would have preferred to see Richard Holbrooke or even Sen. Lugar, or even some academic for that matter.


Fairfax, Va.: I think the picks speak to smarts of the manager making the picks -- in fact the president-elect is the manager, EVERYONE else is on the team, including Sen. Clinton and the former president. The latter not going to be one to be one who wants to be seen as rogue or running contrary to the current president. To suggest otherwise is not proven, going rogue on the campaign trail is quite different than running the government They all know their roles and the limnits of power that represents...

William Arkin: I agree, but like Powell at State going up against Rumsfeld and Cheney, there are power centers and people with and without the President's ear, and there are people's management styles as well (Condi as national security policy was a "bridger" and thus did not provide the president with clear yes or no choices.) Teamwork, ra ra, I get it. Obama has his hands full, and now with a General running national security, a Republican Secretary of Defense, and his former opponent as Secretary of State, he has made it ... easier? I don't see it.


Alexandria, Va.: Probably a stupid question, but what exactly does the secretary of state do? Is it a position that is mainly focused outward, negotiating with other countries, etc, or inward, managing the bureacracy? Or does it depend on the secretary?

If it is mainly the former, then I can see Sen. Clinton and her "star power" excelling at the job, even if she has to depend heavily on others (including her husband) for policy advice.

If it is the later, then she's probably sunk -- I haven't seen any evidence she has the excutive management skills needed to manage a federal bureacracy as egocentric as the State Department.

William Arkin: The Secretary of State is America's top diplomat, despite the Pentagon having all of the money and much of the power. And she will oversee a huge establishment, both in Washington and around the world. It once was the preeminent Cabinet post and maybe Obama's intent is to again make it so. We'll see.


San Diego, Calif.: I get what you're saying about how most people who voted for Obama did so in part because of his position on the war. I'm one of those people. But I want him to do it in a way that will both preserve whatever gains we have made over there and allow our troops to get out safely. I'm happy to see him pick people who won't necessarily agree with him as a knee-jerk reaction.

William Arkin: I haven't seen much knee-jerk anything from Obama, nor for that matter Gates. But Gates is still the custodian of the current policy. Admittedly, Bush has slowly provided the means for Obama to implement his withdrawal plan, thanks to the success of the surge -- something Obama opposed. But it is just a temporary state of affairs. The question in Iraq is not getting out but what the president will do if fighting or violence significantly increases with the American withdrawal.


Clinton Restoration??: Do you have suggestions about from which pool of qualified candidates Obama should have drawn his appointees? Clinton was president for 8 years -- it's been slim pickings for the Democrats in the White House for some time. Of course there are many people who worked for the Clintons being appointed. They are the ones with experience.

Experience doesn't necessarily equate corruption and working for the Clinton administration doesn't necessarily equate some level of incompetence.

Those clamoring for total "change" should research the early days of the Carter administration and report back on how well that kind of total sweep worked for Carter. Obama, thankfully, is a pragmatist and not a blind ideologue.

William Arkin: There is something very pragmatic and clever about these picks and I wish the president well. But foreign policy and national security is about an idea, a vision, and I hope Obama has one that reflects his core beliefs and not just "pragmatism." I'm not suggesting that Obama declare peace or do anything ideologically; I'm merely suggesting that he look beyond the current generation and the celebrities for help. Those are the people who got him to the point in 2006 where he was a credible candidate.


General running national security, a Republican Secretary of Defense, and his former opponent as Secretary of State, he has made it ... easier?: If they understand their roles, which they all do, have a clear agenda provided to them to follow....everyone is on the same page from the top down,. Unlike the previous group, multiple camps, with disparate agendas -- and no manager at the top calling the shots. It works if it is led, will fail if it is not -- but it has yet to have that chance. Ra-ra team

William Arkin: "which they all do...." That's the question. And it's still up in the air whether Obama will provide a clear agenda beyond Iraq. And even there, it's no longer clear.


William Arkin: Okay all, it's been fun taking your questions. The proof, of course, will come with confirmation, transition, the full teams, and whatever it is that the world will throw at America. I for one would like to see national security policy a little more proactive and less reactive, and in that regard I don't look to Gates for much .. umm .. help. Nor Clinton. Yes everyone wants to "restore" America's standing, but what does it mean? What should actually happen? Where should we spend our money? I see no evidence in these three appointments of three minds who are clear about these questions, nor how they can distinguish themselves from Bush policies. I am an Obama supporter, a disappointed one. Til next time....


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