Not surprisingly, most media attention in the foreign policy realm has focused on the top jobs in President-elect Donald Trump’s staff that are yet to be filled — secretary of state and secretary of defense. The soap opera swirling around Mitt Romney, aggravated by Kellyanne Conway’s outrageous public effort to pressure the president and convert the selection of America’s top diplomat into a political loyalty test, should not obscure the role of two other jobs, one of which is filled — for now — and the other of which is open.
The job filled for now is the national security adviser. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn and his underqualified deputy K.T. McFarland (whose last public position was as a speechwriter 30 years ag0) are, to be blunt, unlikely to be there for the long haul. Flynn’s temperament, rotten management skills, rhetorical outbursts and radical take on Russia make him uniquely unqualified to play the role of traffic cop and honest broker, which are the central tasks of the national security adviser. How long before he creates the same sort of chaos and discord that got him bounced from his last job as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency? How long before the president gets the idea that Flynn’s braggadocio is not matched by a sophisticated understanding of national security strategy? Not long, we suggest. (Flynn’s reported opposition to heavyweight candidates for secretary of defense and state reveals his underlying insecurity about his own abilities.) Retired Gen. James L. Jones flamed out in less than two years in the Obama administration as national security adviser; multiple foreign policy hands with whom I have spoken think Flynn will be out by the end of the summer.
Flynn’s presence should raise concern about who can handle him in the short run, and who will replace him when he flames out. His deputy is hardly qualified for the job she is about to take so Flynn’s replacement, who is likely to come sooner rather than later, will be a critical player in the formation of administration policy. Unless Trump wants to go through the rigmarole of hiring a new face, the inevitable Flynn replacement is very likely to come from within the administration — the No. 2 person at the state or defense departments or some other player with whom Trump has developed a relationship of trust.
And that is where the second position at issue, the No. 2 man at the State Department, becomes critical. That is arguably the most important position no one outside foreign policy circles knows about. It is nevertheless crucial to the success of American foreign policy. Traditionally, the deputy secretary of state has been someone who “runs the building,” wrestling the permanent bureaucracy (unusually resistant to political oversight, especially from Republicans) into submission and making sure the president’s wishes get translated into action. While the secretary of state is on the road and in the air, someone has to watch the store back home. That has usually been the deputy.
Former ambassador John Bolton, who met yesterday with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and is set to meet with Trump tomorrow, had an insightful take on the task ahead in that regard. On “Fox and Friends,” he argued for the need for a “cultural revolution” at the State Department, making certain that a department of 70,000 follows the president’s wishes and not the other way around. There are few experienced hands who know how the State Department works today and have a granular understanding as to how it should function. If not Bolton himself, someone very much like him would be ideal in the No. 2 spot at State.
In short, those looking one or two moves ahead should keep an eye on not only who gets the secretary of state and secretary of defense posts but who winds up as the deputy secretary of state. That might be the linchpin holding the administration’s foreign policy together — and might become the solution to the Flynn problem.