Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Friedman gets "got your back" backwards

As is his wont, Thomas Friedman today takes a useful concept and beats it to death, oversimplifying in the process.

The concept is that the single most important factor in a secretary of state's effectiveness is whether the secretary has the president's full backing:

what made [Secretary of State James A. Baker III] an effective diplomat was not only his own skills as a negotiator — a prerequisite for the job — but the fact that his boss, President George H.W. Bush, always had Baker’s back. When foreign leaders spoke with Baker, they knew that they were speaking to President Bush, and they knew that President Bush would defend Baker from domestic rivals and the machinations of foreign governments.

That backing is the most important requirement for a secretary of state to be effective. Frankly, Obama could appoint his dear mother-in-law as secretary of state, and if he let the world know she was his envoy, she would be more effective than any ex-ambassador who had no relationship with the president.

Fair enough. But most people viewing this appointment would be more worried about whether Clinton will have Obama's back than vice versa. A president can't be effective if the secretary of state --or any other top-ranking member of the foreign policy team--freelances, has her own agenda, goes rogue obviously or covertly, creates facts on the ground.

To be fair, Friedman does tack around to this point eventually. But he views it through the wrong end of the telescope:
My question is whether a President Obama and a Secretary of State Clinton, given all that has gone down between them and their staffs, can have that kind of relationship, particularly with Mrs. Clinton always thinking four to eight years ahead, and the possibility that she may run again for the presidency. I just don’t know.

Every word that is said between them in public, and every leak, will be scrutinized for what it means politically and whether there is daylight. That is not a reason not to appoint Mrs. Clinton. But it is a reason for everyone around the president-elect to take a deep breath and ask whether they are prepared to have the kind of air-tight relationship with Mrs. Clinton that is required for effective diplomacy.
Finally, to hammer his point home, Friedman gets the history underlying the political cliche of the season exactly backwards:
When it comes to appointing a secretary of state, you do not want a team of rivals.
"Team of Rivals" is of course the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin's group biography of Lincoln's chief rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860, all of whom ended up in his cabinet. Lincoln's Secretary of State, William H. Seward, was indeed in a situation closely analogous to Hillary's. The odds-on favorite for the nomination, he bitterly resented having it snatched by the less experienced but more politically nimble Lincoln. At first, he assumed -- and openly proposed to Lincoln -- that he, Seward, would effectively lead Administration policy. Lincoln swiftly disabused him of that notion -- and almost as swiftly earned his trust and admiration. Seward eventually wrote to his wife, "the president is the best of us." The bond between them became the stuff of legend.

On the other hand, another member of Lincoln's "Team," Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, worked tirelessly to undercut Lincoln, and indeed plotted to replace him as Republican nominee in 1864. At the same time, for all the knives he tossed at Lincoln's back, he effectively financed a war of unprecedented expense.

In short, Friedman's use of the team of rivals trope tells us exactly nothing. Would Clinton be a Seward or a Chase in Obama's Cabinet? Probably neither.

1 comment:

  1. it seems like, if Hillary becomes the Sec. State, then there will be some serious personality and agenda conflict between her and Obama

    ReplyDelete

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