Barack Obama bets big on Hillary as secretary of state

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  Nov. 18, 2008 at 11:19 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- President-elect Barack Obama continues to confound friends and foes alike with his centrist but bold moves. The latest, naming Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. -- his archrival in the presidential primary campaign -- as secretary of state, carries considerable risks. But if it works, it will prove to be a masterstroke.

The Clinton appointment even made sense to conservative talk show commentator Rush Limbaugh. He called it "very brilliant" -- but as a political move to limit Hillary's political aspirations more than tapping her diplomatic skills. Many others with less partisan views are saying, however, that Clinton's diplomatic skills are the very reason to move her to Foggy Bottom; that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, will make a formidable foreign policy team.

Nobody saw the Clinton choice coming. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, was widely seen as the front-runner for the post -- the most important in Obama's Cabinet. And Kerry, who started his career as a Foreign Service officer and is the son of another one, badly wanted the appointment and was pushing hard for it.

Two other names most commonly mentioned were New Mexico Governor and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. Either of them had the makings of an excellent secretary of state.

But the Hillary Clinton appointment could prove ideal for Obama. The president-elect recognizes that despite the standout success of his "grand tour" of Afghanistan, the Middle East and Western Europe in July, he is widely seen as a neophyte in terms of foreign policy and he lacks much personal background with most of the world's leaders. Clinton, who was first lady for eight years and has been one of the most influential and high-profile members of the U.S. Senate for the past eight years, rectifies that shortcoming in a spectacular manner.

Also, during the long, hard-fought Democratic primary election campaign, Clinton carved out for herself a tough and hawkish series of positions on foreign policy. She was especially outspoken on the need to deter Iran from threatening the United States and its ally Israel with nuclear weapons.

By appointing such a forceful figure as his secretary of state, Obama is sending notice to the world that the restructuring of U.S. foreign policy he envisages is not intended to come at the price of making the United States toothless, naive or vulnerable on the world scene.

In terms of political philosophy, the move makes perfect sense. For all the long and intense aspects of their primary election contest, the differences between Obama and Clinton on foreign policy and national security issues were few and far between. Obama even joked at one point in the campaign that any Democratic president would be choosing from the same pool of experts and advisers.

Obama and Clinton are both committed to restoring U.S. prestige and to maintaining U.S. leadership in the world. Both of them favor a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq. Both of them are determined to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. Both of them want to improve relations with Russia and defuse tensions while deterring the Kremlin from more risky adventures like its invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia in the Caucasus last August.

Politically, the Clinton appointment has potentially rich payoffs for Obama, too. It strengthens his prestige and administration. It reassures American voters that he is not going to be irresponsible or an extremist in his conduct of foreign policy. It removes from her permanent base in the U.S. Senate his greatest potential rival and puts the onus on her to cooperate with him and serve him loyally.

At the same time, the move rewards Clinton in the very area that matters to her most. She has been passionately involved in foreign policy and national security issues during her years in the Senate. A successful term as secretary of state would remove the greatest criticism leveled against her, that she still lacks any direct executive experience and that she has been a poor administrator. If her term as secretary of state works out well, she could still look at the possibility of wining a presidential term in her own right eight years from now.

Finally, the move rewards Clinton for her effectiveness and loyalty in bringing most of her own supporters into the Obama camp in the presidential election. The Democratic Party was badly divided between the two factions when the long primary campaign finally ended and Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona was hopeful he could pick up a lot of working-class and female Democratic grassroots supporters who were angry that Clinton had lost. But the overwhelming majority of them heeded Clinton's call and rallied to Obama in the general election.

Obama is obviously running a risk in recruiting such an intelligent, forceful, experienced and confident figure, whose own presidential hopes he dashed, to serve as his main foreign policy lieutenant.

President Woodrow Wilson came to regret appointing William Jennings Bryan as secretary of state in 1913, and President Harry S. Truman had to get rid of Sen. James Byrnes as his secretary of state in the 1940s precisely because of such personality clashes. But Abraham Lincoln got valuable service out of William Henry Seward as his secretary of state during the U.S. Civil War. Obama, confident and bold in his policy calls, expects to walk in Lincoln's footsteps.

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