President-elect Barack Obama has appointed an extraordinary team for national security policy. On its face, it violates certain maxims of conventional wisdom: that appointing to the Cabinet individuals with an autonomous constituency, and who therefore are difficult to fire, circumscribes presidential control; that appointing as national security adviser, secretary of state and secretary of defense individuals with established policy views may absorb the president’s energies in settling disputes among strong-willed advisers.
By Henry A. Kissinger
December 5, 2008; Page A25
It took courage for the president-elect to choose this constellation and no little inner assurance — both qualities essential for dealing with the challenge of distilling order out of a fragmenting international system. In these circumstances, ignoring conventional wisdom may prove to have been the precondition for creativity. Both Obama and the secretary of state-designate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, must have concluded that the country and their commitment to public service require their cooperation.
Those who take the phrase “team of rivals” literally do not understand the essence of the relationship between the president and the secretary of state. I know of no exception to the principle that secretaries of state are influential if and only if they are perceived as extensions of the president. Any other course weakens the president and marginalizes the secretary. The Beltway system of leak and innuendo will mercilessly seek to widen any even barely visible split. Foreign governments will exploit the rift by pursuing alternative White House-State Department diplomacies. Effective foreign policy and a significant role for the State Department in it require that the president and the secretary of state have a common vision of international order, overall strategy and tactical measures. Inevitable disagreements should be settled privately; indeed, the ability of the secretary to warn and question is in direct proportion to the discretion with which such queries are expressed.