Foreign and Defense Policy

Ask the scholars: Who’s on deck for State and Defense?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice attend the dignified transfer ceremony for the U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. Image credit: Official Secretary of Defense Flickr

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice attend the dignified transfer ceremony for the U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. Image credit: Official Secretary of Defense Flickr

There’s been a ton of talk in the media over who President Obama will appoint as successors to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Rumors are flying that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry is up for nomination for Secretary of Defense, while the controversial US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice could be the next Secretary of State. The nominations come as a shock to many, as neither appear completely qualified for the positions.

For starters, Senator John Kerry has a history of anti-war activism and has gone on record rebuking the role of the military. Merely having served does NOT qualify him for the job. The position of Secretary of State might be a better fit for him given his professional record, as some claim, although it is unlikely that the Senate would ultimately deny him the courtesy.

How Susan Rice, on the other hand, could still be considered for Secretary of State after all the scandal surrounding Benghazi is a mystery. What’s not so mysterious is the obvious message the president is sending: Decisions in the second term will be on Obama’s terms.

I asked our scholars their thoughts on the prospects of Senator Kerry and Ambassador Rice filling the shoes of Clinton and Panetta. Here’s what they had to say:

As Tom Donnelly explains, the controversial appointments would cost the president large “political capital” given the widespread resistance he would receive. Nominating candidates with less controversial baggage would give him more room to push harder on domestic issues down the road. The shift in the president’s priorities early this term may be an indication that foreign issues may be at the forefront of his agenda.

The nominations are a trial balloon, at the very least, of testing the waters of how far the president can push this term’s Senate committee. Likely, the Senators will use the nomination to try to get the bottom of what happen in Benghazi, as Gary Schmitt explains:

Senator Kerry and Ambassador Rice would definitely not be an easy sell, explains Marc Thiessen. Political relations between an already divided Congress would be stressed, while the practical implications to the military could be disastrous.

Okay, so if not Kerry and Rice, then who?

Tom Donnelly offers former Under Secretary of Defense Policy Michele Flournoy as a possible alternative for Senator John Kerry, making her the first woman appointed Secretary of Defense. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter would also qualify.

Gary Schmitt agrees that Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter would be an obvious alternative, but offers retiring Senator Joe Lieberman for Secretary of Defense, given his commitment to military and defense.

Marc Thiessen full-heartedly supports Senator Joe Lieberman.

That’s 1 vote for Michele Flournoy, 2 for Ashton Carter, and 2 Joe Lieberman.

By the way, for those of us who are not crystal clear on this, what are the roles of Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense?

Traditionally, the Secretary of State is seen as the diplomatic position, and ultimately the face of our foreign relations. The Secretary of Defense’s responsibilities has some overlap for similar diplomatic activities, while also in charge of managing the national defense. Both jobs require strong leaders with a well-rounded understanding of the trajectory of the military agenda.

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