Thursday, March 29, 2012

what makes a great secretary of state?

Since I spent time making a comparative study of U.S. Secretaries of Defense, I was intrigued by Aaron David Miller's article on "what it takes to be a great secretary of state."  His analysis, however, is deeply flawed.

It seems that the only secretaries of state who win his admiration are John Quincy Adams, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker.  I haven't done enough historical work to make my own list, but I have no problem with the first three.

Kissinger, however, was great -- that is, effective and influential on a historical scale -- as a president adviser before he was given a second hat as secretary. Baker had a wise and supportive president and NSC team and had several important accomplishments. But he was also the official  who thought diplomacy could stop Saddam Hussein, who tried to prevent the breakup of the Soviet empire, and who also ignored the growing crisis as Yugoslavia broke up.

Miller thinks that a great secretary needs presidential support, male swagger, and a negotiator's mindset. Here he's right on two of the three points. Yet he claims that Hillary Clinton can never be great because of her "anatomy."  Ridiculous!

Secretary Clinton has enormous talent and has done a creditable job on a broad range of foreign policy matters. I think she has strong presidential support, a dealmaker's mindset, and the tough persona to prevail in confrontations. It's not clear whether she deserves to be listed in the top tier of secretaries of state, but she certainly doesn't deserve Miller's nasty dismissal.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

daylight savings

"Spring forward, fall back." What a fine mnemonic! How do they do it in other languages?

Years ago, when Congress was considering a change in daylight savings rules, our Senate office received a letter from an angry constituent. "I don't light daylight savings," she wrote, "because the extra hour of sunlight turns my grass brown."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The military-Republican rift

Usually Republican members of Congress line up with senior military officers and march in lockstep. The politicians call for ever higher military budgets and frequently demand that civilian leaders follow whatever advice the military gives. Now there is an evident and growing rift between senior officers and the "let's fight now" hawks in the Senate. Senators John McCain [R-Ariz] and Lindsey Graham [R-SC] are disputing cautionary military comments about war with Iran and are calling for U.S. military intervention in Syria, an unusually messy situation with a high potential of big power conflict. They really ought to listen to the military this time.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Obama on Iran and Israel

The President has given an extraordinary interview to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg  on his approach to Israel and the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Obama laments that his political foes want to drive a wedge between him and his pro-Israel supporters, then responds pithily, "we've got Israel's back" and "I don't bluff."

From Obama's standpoint, this is a good political preemptive move, giving reassurances to Israel and its friends but also warning Netanyahu that any Israeli military strike needs to be postponed. The Israeli Prime Minister thus has the choice between praising all the language of solidarity or criticizing the President for being unwilling to accept the need for early military action. Let's hope he makes the right choice.

One of the most interesting points by Obama, in my view, is that he goes beyond the usual argument that Iran could be deterred from using nuclear weapons, even if they had them, as the United States and the Soviet Union deterred each other during the cold war. Instead, Obama argues that an Iranian weapon would inevitably lead nearby nations to acquire their own nuclear capability, creating an even more volatile, unstable situation in which simple bilateral deterrence would not likely work.