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Obama’s New National Security Team?

While no official announcements have been made, President Obama’s second term national security team appears to be taking shape. If reporting is right, it looks to be a solid group.

We know for sure that Susan Rice won’t be Secretary of State; she’s withdrawn her name from consideration, either on her own or not. Most likely, though, she’ll get an excellent consolation prize: National Security Advisor. The likes of Henry Kissinger and Condi Rice have been quite influential, indeed, in that post–and it’s one that doesn’t require Senate confirmation, since it’s part of the White House staff, not the cabinet.

This strikes me as a good thing.

I’m torn on the Benghazi controversy. On the one hand, it’s fabulously stupid: The United Nations ambassador has as much to do with the security of US embassies and consulates as I do. On the other hand, she was inexplicably sent on a tour of the Sunday morning talk shows to parrot a set of talking points that were known to be untrue. If she knew they were untrue, that’s simply untenable. If she didn’t, it doesn’t speak well for her, either.

Beyond that, though, the evidence is mounting that, as Dan Drezner observed several days back, that “Rice simply isn’t a that good of a diplomat.” Oh, she’s a highly intelligent foreign policy wonk. But she seems not to play well with others and she botched her Senate goodwill tour so badly that even Susan Collins came out against her. As National Security Advisor, she can be just as influential–if not more so–than any Secretary of State, presuming she has the president’s confidence.

Rice’s elimination from the Secretary of State job is John Kerry’s gain. He’s the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a thoughtful foreign policy thinker. He’s also someone who seems to have a natural diplomatic flair. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I had grave doubts about Hillary Clinton in that regard; while she’s had some bad moments, I was largely wrong.) And Senate Republicans have already signaled, quite loudly and publicly, that Kerry would sail through the confirmation process.

Finally, former Republican Senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel had widely been rumored to be a top candidate for both the Secretary of Defense and CIA Director posts. This afternoon, Bloomberg broke the news that Hagel passed the vetting process for SECDEF and “may be nominated as soon as this month.” That report has been widely circulated by other reputable media outlets, although NBC’s Chuck Todd counters that “the administration says it has made no final decision yet and that no nominations for the Cabinet will be announced this week.”

Now, Hagel is my boss’ boss, so it would be awkward, to say the least, for me to comment on the merits of his appointment. Nor, I should make crystal clear, do I have any inside information on this; I know as much as any interested foreign policy wonk who reads the papers and no more.  But regular readers know my inclinations on national security policy and there’s considerable overlap between my views on the major issues of the day and his. WaPo’s Max Fisher has an excellent roundup, for example, of Hagel’s public statements on Iran, which are both unconventional and differ very little from my own.  (I would note that the overlap is almost entirely coincidental; there’s a pretty wide range of views on this and other foreign policy issues in the building.) I’d like to think it’s a function of combat veterans tending to be less war happy than those who’ve never been in harm’s way but, then, there’s John McCain.

FP’s Joshua Keating, meanwhile, argues that nominating Hagel would “signal” that “the administration is sticking with the plan on Iran.” But that strikes me as reversing cart and horse: Barack Obama has just been easily re-elected as commander-in-chief. The presumption should be that he’s going to stick with the policies of his first term. While SECDEF is indeed a major policy player, it’s inside the building, not on which wars we fight. As Dave Weigel notes, Hagel’s on-the-record remarks about the “bloated” DoD budget—in direct contravention of Panetta’s whinging about the devastation of cutting but to pre-9/11 spending levels that would still put us spending more than all our allies and potential enemies combined—that’s most interesting, not his views on intervention.

Daniel Larison indirectly points to the other interesting aspect of the nomination, should it come to pass: the fact that he’s “another Republican internationalist.” Some Democratic pundits have been quite agitated that Democratic presidents have a propensity to nominate Republicans to the Defense post, sending the message that Democrats are incapable of managing the nation’s Defense establishment. Now, as a moderate Republican, I find that rather silly.  Bill Clinton nominated Bill Cohen, a liberal Republican from Maine. Barack Obama kept Bob Gates, a career public servant whose star ascended first in a Republican administration, on as SECDEF. And, now, Obama is rumored to be nominating Hagel, a moderate Republican who is at odds with his party’s foreign policy establishment. But Clinton had two Democrats–Les Aspin and William Perry–running the Pentagon prior to Cohen and Obama nominated Leon Panetta, a staunchly Democratic politician, to succeed Gates and might well have kept him on if he weren’t eager to retire. At any rate, all three of the Republicans who would have served under Democratic presidents in this scenario are of the same cloth: moderates who are more loyal to country than party.

We still don’t know who will be CIA Director but, while it’s still an important job even though he no longer wears the Director of Central Intelligence hat, it’s typically not one with a major policymaking role.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Whitfield says:

    Best Sec. of State: Dr. Henry Kissinger, by far

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 14

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    @Whitfield: The man who said U.S. soldiers were dumb brutes to be used when convenient?

    Really?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  3. michael reynolds says:

    The peace plan for Vietnam that Kissinger negotiated is still working. If by working you mean that the North crushed the South and now there’s peace. Plus Cambodia eventually got over that whole Killing Fields unpleasantness.

    I’ve always liked Hagel. He and Luger were models of conservative Republicans who managed to live in the real world as opposed to the rest of their party, current headquarters: Arkham Asylum. Of course sanity = treason in the GOP, so I’m not sure how happy Republicans will be about Hagel.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  4. Bennett says:

    What a bunch of a-holes. Kerry wasn’t qualified to be President because he was against a war he fought in. But sure, he can be the head of our foreign policy department. I’m sure an open Senate seat in Massachusetts has nothing to do with it. Opportunistic bast***s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  5. Argon says:

    ‘…and she botched her Senate goodwill tour so badly that even Susan Collins came out against her.’

    Um, I think Collins wants Kerry for the role so that Scott Brown can run for Senate again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Bennett: @Argon: It’s hardly the case that, if Susan Rice was out of the way, the only Democrat on the planet capable of being nominated to State was Kerry. For that matter, surely Obama is a shrewd enough politician that, if nominating Kerry meant that giving that seat to a Republican, he could figure that out and avoid it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  7. The United Nations ambassador has as much to do with the security of US embassies and consulates as I do. On the other hand, she was inexplicably sent on a tour of the Sunday morning talk shows to parrot a set of talking points that were known to be untrue. If she knew they were untrue, that’s simply untenable. If she didn’t, it doesn’t speak well for her, either.

    I agree with you about the first part. I have never understood why she was chosen to be a spokesperson on this topic. However, on the second part: how should she have known that CIA talking points were untrue?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  8. Stonetools says:

    One problem with James’ analysis is that Obama already has a National Security adviser. Does he just go puff ?
    I still think Donilon will be the pick for State. Handing The Republicans a shot at a Massachusetts Senate spot would be politically stupid, given what happened with Kennedy’s seat.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. Franklin says:

    @Whitfield: Might want to re-read the history books again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. Jeremy R says:

    @James:

    But she seems not to play well with others and she botched her Senate goodwill tour so badly that even Susan Collins came out against her.

    Considering Collins threw out completely spurious accusations to explain her opposition, that’s much more a black mark on Collins than Rice:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/us/politics/rice-drops-bid-for-secretary-of-state-white-house-says.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0

    She also raised a new concern: Ms. Rice’s role in protecting embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that were bombed by terrorists in 1998. … allegations that she did not respond to requests by the embassies for additional security proved groundless …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’ve seen conflicting reports on this. Certainly, our diplomats in Benghazi were saying from Day 1 that it was a terrorist attack, not a spontaneous riot. So, the talking points were obviously untrue even without the benefit of classified intel.

    @Jeremy R: Rice was heading the Africa desk for State at the time. But Collins’ remarks were the first time that I’d ever heard questions about Rice’s role in the 1998 attacks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. lunaticllama says:

    Republican James Joyner joins the wingnuts. Actually, no one knew those talking points were untrue at the time she went on those shows. I know in fantasy land, all good foreign policy officials vehemently question all talking points produced by the CIA and DNI (for example, Bush seriously questioned the intelligence on 9/11 and WMD in Iraq….)

    I’m happy that our country says certain people are disqualified for jobs for no discernible reason and for trusting the fact that the CIA’s intelligence might be correct. It’s a very sound governance proposisiton

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. Tsar Nicholas says:

    At the risk of damning him with faint praise I can say that especially under the circumstances Hagel as SecDef is a relief. Solid political experience. Solid business experience. Clearly to the overall right of the likes of Bill Cohen and Leon Panetta, but not nearly as married to profligacy, which in these dire fiscal times both is necessary and appropriate.

    Hagel’s no Henry Stimson, but again when Hanoi John Kerry was the other option we should consider ourselves quite fortunate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 6

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    On the other hand, she was inexplicably sent on a tour of the Sunday morning talk shows to parrot a set of talking points that were known to be untrue. If she knew they were untrue, that’s simply untenable. If she didn’t, it doesn’t speak well for her, either.

    Why is it untenable James? People engaged in national security situations lie all the time for a variety of reasons. Hell, we expect them to. Hell, we would fire them if they didn’t. I don’t get this obsession. Saying she could have said something more nebulous is a red herring of an argument. She was sent to the Sunday morning shows with a set of talking points.

    Why? Hell if I know. But if telling lies was an impeachable offense, Wash DC would be empty of people in double quick time. If I had a nickle for every time a politician told a lie, I could pay off the national debt.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. Brummagem Joe says:

    On the other hand, she was inexplicably sent on a tour of the Sunday morning talk shows to parrot a set of talking points that were known to be untrue.

    Whether they were known to be untrue at the time is a little murky but even assuming this to have been the case she was unaware of this at the time was she not?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. An Interested Party says:

    …but again when Hanoi John Kerry was the other option we should consider ourselves quite fortunate.

    Oh my, such tough words from someone whose closest experience with war is a videogame in his Xbox…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    If she knew they were untrue, that’s simply untenable. If she didn’t, it doesn’t speak well for her, either.

    JJ is something of a master of the double standard and self contradicting statements regrettably. On many occasions he’s argued it’s ok to be economical with the actualite where the national interest is concerned (which I agree with) but apparently in this particular case it would have been untenable. Allternatively, he’s faulting her for not second guessing the entire national intelligence apparatus who provided her with the talking points. She was quite clearly just the messenger in this case as has been confirmed by the DNI but JJ has to construct some rationale that justifys Republican attacks on her over this incident. There is no rationale, it was a blatant Republican attempt to politicize an aspect of our foreign policy which has entirely failed except inasmuch as it has damaged the career of this obviously highly intelligent and competent woman. It’s incredibly petty but that’s how today’s Republican party operates. Btw this other chatter about her being undiplomatic seems to be based on nothing. There’s a story in this morning’s NYT on the topic that adduces no evidence whatsoever for these claims other than the fact she allegedly told the Chinese ambassador to the UN that he was being ridiculous. Tut…. tut.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. Moosebreath says:

    James,

    “Some Democratic pundits have been quite agitated that Democratic pundits have a propensity to nominate Republicans to the Defense post, sending the message that Democrats are incapable of managing the nation’s Defense establishment. Now, as a moderate Republican, I find that rather silly.”

    Why do you find that silly? Is it because of all the Democrats nominated for Defense by Republicans (oh, wait — there haven’t been any). Is it because since the post was created in the Truman Administration, the only Democrat who did not have at least one Republican Secretary of Defense is Carter?

    This is yet another example of how the so-called moderate establishment leans heavily towards Republican positions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  19. Brummagem Joe says:

    Btw JJ given your foreign policy credentials I’d have thought you would have been aware of this most famous definition of a diplomat

    “An ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Moosebreath:

    This is yet another example of how the so-called moderate establishment leans heavily towards Republican positions.

    I don’t think this is necessarily true. When I run my mind back across the Republican occupants of this position most of them wouldn’t have looked out of place on the realist side of the Democratic party. The attraction of moderate Republicans for this job is that basically you have to have the confidence of the military establishment in what is fundamentally a very conservative entity. This may be unpalatable to many leftish Democrats but it’s a fact of life that has to be recognised. It’s neither organisationally or politically viable to put a radical “liberal” in the job like (to take a reductio ad absurdum example) Boxer. Even if they survived confirmation it would be a recipe for chaos in the Defense Dept.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Moosebreath says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    “The attraction of moderate Republicans for this job is that basically you have to have the confidence of the military establishment in what is fundamentally a very conservative entity. This may be unpalatable to many leftish Democrats but it’s a fact of life that has to be recognised.”

    And yet, the establishment (not just military) does not seem to have confidence in moderate Democrats (i.e., no groundswell for a Sam Nunn to be appointed, no push for Bush the Younger to keep Perry on from the Clinton Administration). That fact of life suggests that it leans right, not centrist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: I think it’s fine to withhold facts in certain limited situations where lives are on the line. Ongoing or about-to-be-launched military operations are a classic case. Nothing of that sort was on the line here. They were blaming an attack that killed Americans on the free speech of an American citizen when they knew it was in fact an attack by al Qaeda.

    @Moosebreath: It’s a fair point. Certainly, there are plenty of Dems appointed to the post but, no, I can’t think of a case where a Republican appointed a Democrat to SECDEF. Other posts, yes, but not Defense.

    @Brummagem Joe: Diplomats sticking to their talking points when talking to foreign nationals is quite a different thing than going on Sunday talk shows to feed propaganda to the American people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think it’s fine to withhold facts in certain limited situations where lives are on the line. Ongoing or about-to-be-launched military operations are a classic case. Nothing of that sort was on the line here……….

    Diplomats sticking to their talking points when talking to foreign nationals is quite a different thing than going on Sunday talk shows to feed propaganda to the American people.

    Propaganda? I’m going to be polite JJ and assume you are unaware of the statements by the various intelligence agencies that they deliberately avoided references to terrorism in these talking points because they wished to avoid alerting potential targets to what they knew. This seems to exactly meet the criteria you set out in your first statement.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  24. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Moosebreath:

    And yet, the establishment (not just military) does not seem to have confidence in moderate Democrats

    That fact of life suggests that it leans right, not centrist.

    Not really. The fact is that with this job the military establishment out ranks your rather ill defined general “establishment” although it’s probably true to say that your general establishment recognises and accepts this fact of life.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. anjin-san says:

    Hanoi John Kerry

    How does Kerry telling the truth about Viet Nam make him a commie? Someone needed to do it…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  26. Moosebreath says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    “The fact is that with this job the military establishment out ranks your rather ill defined general “establishment””

    Funny, I thought the military in this country was subject to civilian control, and do not choose who their civilian leaders are. My mistake.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. DRE says:

    @James Joyner:

    Diplomats sticking to their talking points when talking to foreign nationals is quite a different thing than going on Sunday talk shows to feed propaganda to the American people.

    Two questions:
    1. Could you please explain how this was propaganda? What was the administration try to fool people into doing or supporting?

    2. We are talking about a situation in a very important and volatile country where it is to be expected that we have a fairly massive intelligence presence. It is also related to an unknown extent with issues that are critical to our entire foreign policy. It is also a very recent situation where no one is confident that all the important facts are known. Do you really believe, despite all of the above, that our UN ambassador should second guess the intelligence community and the Administration about what is appropriate for her to say to the media, regardless of what her own opinions might be? I find that frankly incredible.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  28. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Funny, I thought the military in this country was subject to civilian control, and do not choose who their civilian leaders are.

    Where did you get that silly idea from?…..LOL. Not that I said they actually chose their leaders so that’s a misrepresentation but obviously their attitudes are a large factor that has to be taken into account. None of this requires a large leap of imagination I would have thought. It’s very hard to function when you don’t have the confidence of your subordinates.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. DRE says:

    @James Joyner:

    They were blaming an attack that killed Americans on the free speech of an American citizen when they knew it was in fact an attack by al Qaeda.

    This is just not true, or at least we have no way of knowing it, if it was. They knew that the attack was carried out by an organized Libyan group who had some ties to al Qaeda. Both the motivation for the attack, and the level of coordination with anyone outside of Libya, was largely unknown. The statements from various players leave a distinct impression that the movie as a motivating factor was very real possibility. People act as if what she said was that this was a spontaneous mob of ordinary citizens reacting to the movie. That is not close to her actual statement.

    I seem to recall that at the time, you were outraged that someone in the embassy in Cairo tweeted something critical of religious intolerance. I think you are letting your belief that free speech rights are somehow infringed by criticism color your judgment about the entire incident. You should just state clearly that your objection is that she was a part of the Administration attack on free speech. But of course then you would have to disqualify Hillary Clinton as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  30. Geek, Esq. says:

    @James Joyner:

    The local militia in Libya that conducted that attack is loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda in the same manner that the US government is loosely affiliated with the governments in Yemen and Bahrain.

    Al Qaeda as a global network subject to a centralized command structure hasn’t existed in some time. It’s mostly a listserv of terrorists and other random thugs these days.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Geek, Esq. says:

    Hagel’s big sin, by the way, is being insufficiently supportive of a certain foreign country.

    People get one guess as to which country one has to be supportive of in order to be qualified to defend OUR country, according to political elite wisdom . . .

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  32. Whitfield says:

    @Franklin: I have read most of Dr. Kissinger’s books, still have a couple to go.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0