Problems for a “Team of Rivals”

By David T. Jones on December 18, 2008

Washington DC  - Washington media has much bruited about the concept of a “team of rivals” for the Obama administration.  The label derives from the Doris Kearns Goodwin book of the same name regarding Abraham Lincoln’s assembly of a Civil War cabinet incorporating his political rivals, who individually and corporately believed themselves far better qualified than he to lead the country under any circumstances, let alone during a civil war.

That said, applying the term to the emerging Obama administration is facile at best, feckless at worst.  To begin, the political/economic circumstances today confronting the United States are nowhere equivalent to the Great Depression of the 1930s or World War II, let alone the Civil War.  The current recession is and will continue to be economically and socially troubling, but its dimensions do not equate with the Depression realities of comprehensive banking failures, bread lines, and 25 percent unemployment.  Nor do the challenges from international/Islamic terrorism reach the existential levels of fascist aggression or communist nuclear threat that dominated global security for 50 years from 1939-89.  

Thus, troubling as they are, the current challenge set does not stimulate “cooperate or die“ impulses that may have prompted Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “we must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”  And nowhere is that lack of an overweening impetus to cooperate more true than in Obama’s collage of “Secretaries of State“ which, depending on the count, may number six or seven.  The assembly is designed for disagreement on a personality level, likely to be reinforced by bureaucratic turf struggles, and replete with substantive differences. 

These differences will be all the more bitter as the competitors vie to influence President Obama’s world view, which is virtually devoid of foreign policy experience, and to bend his reaction to inevitable international events which may (or not) qualify as “crises.”

At the top of the bureaucratic pile is Vice President Joseph Biden who landed on the Democratic ticket at least partly to provide it with foreign policy credentials.  Biden has a generation of Washington experience, much of it connected with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  However, experience does not mean wisdom.  For example, as senator, Biden opposed adopting the UN resolution to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi aggression in 1991, endorsed the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2002, and opposed the Surge in 2007.  This is a trifecta of error that even Sarah Palin would have strained to match.  Nevertheless, VP Biden will demand a hearing on any foreign policy issue and offer opinions that may frequently be jarringly unscripted.

National Security Advisor General James Jones is a four-star Marine with senior Pentagon and Middle East negotiating experience.  Traditionally, the NSA has enormously influenced U.S. foreign policy by combining access to the president for briefings and orchestrating how issues are addressed by the interagency community. 

Frequently, the NSA has overshadowed the Secretary of State (recall Kissinger dominating William Rodgers and Brzezinski competing with Vance and Muskie).  At a minimum, when advising a president with no military experience and who may never even have fired a weapon, Jones will have the last word on military-related elements of foreign policy.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has long experience in Washington, heading the CIA and now with two years leading the Department of Defense.  Through massive funding and personnel, DOD is the 800 pound gorilla that de facto can make foreign policy whenever/wherever it has boots on the ground.  Gates has been credited with pushing for increased State Department funding and staffing; however, the reality remains that in its absence, DOD has a global presence that effectively matches State Department influence.

Secretary of Commerce Bill Richardson was a “wan-ta-be” Secretary of State who may well have believed that his early endorsement of Obama and his Clinton administration credentials as UN ambassador and Energy Secretary qualified him for State.  In any event, Commerce controls the Foreign Commercial Service and has a vital role in trade negotiations.  For Clinton he is the definition of “ingrate” costing her Hispanic support by his defection to Obama after benefiting from President Clinton’s appointments.  There will be no lost love between State and Commerce senior leadership.

UN Ambassador Susan Rice will also presumably have Cabinet rank—and Obama’s ear.  Another defector from the Clinton camp, having been an assistant secretary for African Affairs under the Clinton presidency, Rice advised Obama on foreign policy throughout the campaign.  Here also the degree of Rice’s independence as UN ambassador is likely to be ulcer-inducing at State.

Added to the mix will be the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA director; both while ostensibly not engaged in foreign affairs are principal actors and sometime clandestine competitors with formal diplomacy and intergovernmental relations.

Unfortunately, it is the one with the “name” that has the weakest substantive foreign policy “game” credentials.  Senator Clinton has traveled extensively, but her expertise is globally wide and an inch deep.  Actually, former President Bill Clinton, with his massive experience in Middle East negotiations and a sweeping global network, would have been a more qualified choice!  All recent Secstates (Rice, Powell, Albright, Christopher, Baker, and Shultz) have had better foreign policy and/or executive-administrative credentials. 

Thus the likelihood of these powerful personalities playing nice is zero.  It would be interesting to make book on who will be first defenestrated (and respond with a “tell all” text flagellating his/her colleagues).  President Obama may indeed assemble a “team of rivals” but it will never be a “band of brothers” (or sisters for that matter.)


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