A critical pick

The next secretary of state faces huge challenges

McCain or Obama must choose wisely

August 21, 2008|By John Hughes

PROVO, Utah - As the party conventions draw near, there has been a flurry of media speculation about the candidates' choices for vice president.

Yet an arguably more important choice is the next secretary of state.

For the most part, the vice presidency is a kind of understudy-in-waiting job, charged with a few ceremonial chores.

To be sure, Dick Cheney has wielded considerable influence and power behind the scenes as vice president. But it is doubtful that Sen. John McCain's or Sen. Barack Obama's No. 2 would exert the same kind of authority. Mr. McCain is a confident practitioner of politics and foreign policy. Mr. Obama is a superstar who keeps his advisers under tight control. Neither man will seek a vice president likely to upstage him.

The world the new president will confront is a restless one. India and China are ascendant. Russia, as we have seen recently in Georgia, seeks renewed territorial influence. Islamic lands simmer. Iran threatens.

That's why the secretary of state - the individual who has the president's ear on foreign policy, and who implements it - is so important to the next administration.

Who might fill this vital role?

Mr. Obama has assembled in his presidential campaign a team of several hundred foreign policy advisers.

They include such experts as Susan E. Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs; Dennis Ross, a skilled negotiator in Middle Eastern affairs, who served President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton; Anthony Lake, national security adviser in the Clinton administration; and seasoned politicians with international expertise such as former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and former Indiana Rep. Lee H. Hamilton.

At more elevated levels, and perhaps less involved in day-to-day operations, are former Secretaries of State Madeleine K. Albright and Warren Christopher and former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry.

As perhaps befits someone more confident in the arena of foreign affairs, Mr. McCain has a smaller team of advisers.

They include Richard L. Armitage, a former assistant secretary of state and defense official; Robert Kagan, a conservative scholar with the Carnegie Endowment and a prolific writer of articles and books on foreign affairs; and former Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz.

Having served in five Cabinet posts in different administrations, Mr. Shultz is unlikely to seek office again, but he has all the qualities a president should demand in a secretary of state. (Conflict declared: I worked for Mr. Shultz in the Reagan administration and admire him.)

Mr. Shultz is a true-blue loyalist to the man he serves. When lesser White House officials tried to impose a lie-detector test on every Cabinet minister, Mr. Shultz refused, declaring: "The day my loyalty is in question, I resign." The White House backed down.

He is a man of integrity. When considering some major new foreign policy move, he would gather four or five of his top advisers and ask all of them their views. The congressional aide would forecast likely congressional reaction. I would predict probable media response. Then he would look at us and say: "Now what is the right thing to do?"

He is a steady and peaceful man, slow to anger. But nothing was likely to spark that anger more than some incident involving man's inhumanity to man.

In the Obama camp, speculation about a future secretary of state includes Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has also frequently been mentioned as a possible vice president. Richard C. Holbrooke was a skilled negotiator in the Balkans, but his time may have passed.

My choice would be Dennis Ross, the patient Middle East negotiator. My second choice would be New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has successfully concluded a number of difficult international negotiations.

In the McCain camp, Condoleezza Rice would be a worthy addition to the new team but is unlikely to be carried over. Mr. McCain could opt for one of several experienced international hands, such as Indiana's Sen. Richard G. Lugar.

My choice would be Robert M. Gates, the current secretary of defense. Mr. Gates is an advocate of a strong military supplemented by vigorous "soft power," or public diplomacy, and economic aid. Remarkable for a secretary of defense, he has argued that the State Department is underbudgeted and understaffed.

A new secretary of state will face major challenges, among them keeping terrorism at bay, burnishing America's image as a beacon of freedom, and preserving its superpower role as rising nations seek to share it. The choice should be carefully made.

John Hughes served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs and department spokesman in the Reagan administration. He is a former editor of The Christian Science Monitor, where this article originally appeared.

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