A Republican Secretary of State – Whoever Wins

By David T. Jones on September 20, 2016

Washington,DC ~ The current focus in the United States is on the day-to-day campaign vagaries of the candidates in the presidential election and in particular the upcoming debates (one in late September and three times in October).  

Foreign policy will feature in the debates and the campaign, although for the moment it seems to have boiled down to loving or hating Putin and hating ISIS (but unsure how to kill it off).  There is much more in play, notably the fate of trade agreements now in effect (NAFTA) or prospective (TPP); the North Korean nuclear threat; containing/relating to China in every particular, notably Beijing’s effort to make the South China Sea a personal lake; our relationship with NATO and other allies; and if/when/where to put “boots on the ground.”  Any one of these problems could become incendiary crises before election day.

For the real political and chattering classes, however, the discussions are focused on the future: appointments and jobs.  

One of the top jobs in play will be Secretary of State.

If Donald Trump wins, his choice for Secretary of State will be or will soon become a Republican (thinking of some of the candidates during the 2016 primaries, e.g., Newt Gingrich and generals who have been apolitical or unmarked in their careers to date).  That political choice is politically/philosophically a no brainer but only a personnel selection decision.

For Clinton, however, it is a more complex situation.  

A President Hillary Clinton would inherit a State Department that if not a smoking ruin is certainly damaged goods. 

Despite having served as Secretary of State (doing better personally and substantively than she has received credit), she has caused the damage to the State Department with the controversy over her astonishingly careless if not certifiably criminal personal email management.  Secretary John Kerry has been unable to do much to mitigate or fix that during his tenure.  Nor are there many poised to offer him a Nobel Peace Prize for the kick-the-can-down-the-road agreement with Tehran to defer their nuclear weapons production.  Nor for the series of bubblegum and duct tape “cease fire” agreements in Syria, which double as reloading breaks for combatants.

Some of Clinton’s possible ‘natural choices’ for Secretary of State, e.g., UN Ambassador Susan Rice, are themselves embroiled in the email controversy.  

Their confirmation hearings would be an invitation to a long re-litigation of the whole controversy which may/may not be formally over in Spring 2017 given the continued dribble of new caches of “lost” or un-provided emails that seems to occur regularly.  

This does not even address substantive questions about what a President Clinton foreign policy would be.

What to do? Pick a Republican as Secretary of State. It looks bipartisan and statesmanlike.

Although there has never been a Republican SecState in a Democratic administration (or vice versa), Republicans have served as Secretary of Defense in Democratic administrations, most recently Chuck Nagel, Robert Gates (SecDef for both Presidents Bush and Obama), and William Cohen. 

Granted, for many Republicans, particularly Republicans with future ambitions, this proposal would be handing them an offering of a six pack of poisoned chalices. Many would take a pass, either for personal or philosophical reasons. Others might not. 

Hearken back to the trolling for a Vice President for each party. A high position such as the Secretary of State, the first rank in the Cabinet, is a glittery and very attractive lure for many.  And it has been an historical stepping stone to the presidency (most obviously for former Secretary Clinton).

So it is a tempting and very visible prize nationally and globally. Without naming names, a current or former Senator or Congressman would be a good choice.  There are some “political” former ambassadors such as Jon Huntsman who might be worth considering.

However tattered, the remnants of Congressional courtesy that still remain on Capitol Hill could assure a short and fairly uncontentious hearing where the nominee will pledge to have photos of themselves at their security in-briefings and communications equipment issue overseen by certified, nonpolitical IT specialists. Moreover, it could be a gesture toward obtaining bipartisan support for many foreign policy initiatives.

The United States has spent a protracted period with internecine domestic struggle that has repeatedly spilled into loud foreign policy disagreement.  The old adage that politics stops at the border isn’t even mentioned in passing with partisan attacks from senior officials delivered from platforms overseas.  It is demeaning.

We have much to repair, first in political comity before even considering substantive compromises.  A Republican Secretary of State with stature would be a good start.

David Jones and Paul Tyson are retired U.S. diplomats.  They have a combined total of 90 years of experience with the U.S. Department of State and U.S. foreign affairs


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