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Columns

December 6, 2012

COMMENTARY: Four traits make a great Secretary of State

The secretary of state sweepstakes is on. Who's it going to be? Susan Rice, John Kerry, Tom Donilon or some mystery candidate who will surprise us all?

Forget the who for a moment. What does the nation's top diplomat need to succeed? Above all, a close bond with the president. Having worked for a half-dozen secretaries of state, I've developed four essential criteria for what it takes to be a truly consequential one.

— Anatomy really is destiny. Freud was probably talking about gender differences here. The ability to project a physical presence and persona is crucial to success in politics and foreign policy. This isn't necessarily related to physical stature or gender. Henry Kissinger hardly looked as if he had walked out of a GQ photo spread. Yet he had star quality. As does Hillary Clinton. Not so much for Warren Christopher — a man of stellar character yet hardly imposing persona.

F. Scott Fitzgerald held that persona flowed from an unbroken series of gestures. Effective presidents and secretaries of state are actors on a public stage; they require charm, flattery, toughness and drama to make allies and adversaries take them seriously, particularly in a negotiation or crisis.

When a U.S. secretary of state walks into the room, either here or abroad, his or her interlocutors need to be on the edge of their seats, not sitting comfortably, wondering how best to manipulate the secretary. If anything, they should be worried about being manipulated themselves.

This means playing a number of roles, sometimes with high gestures of real or feigned anger, frustration or disappointment. At the 1948 Senate hearings on the plan for European recovery that would bear his name, George C. Marshall, whom columnist James Reston described that day as displaying "moral grandeur," silenced an interrupting senator with a single glare. Kissinger threatened to walk out on Syria's Hafez al-Assad at least once; James Baker did the same with Assad, the Palestinians and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

— You must have the negotiator's mindset. By definition, effective secretaries of state conduct negotiations, defuse crises and tackle issues that normal human beings consider very hard. A coherent worldview is important too, but not as critical as the instinctive ability to know how to make a deal, sense the opportunity, and then figure out how to close it.

Kissinger may have been the grand strategist, but both he and Baker had the negotiator's mindset, the ability to figure out how to assemble the pieces of the puzzle strewn on the living-room floor and stay even when all the pieces didn't quite fit. Kissinger's Middle East diplomacy — three disengagement agreements after the October 1973 war — is a remarkable testament to those skills. The one between Israel and Syria still survives, while the other two, between Egypt and Israel, evolved into a peace treaty. You can't learn these things in school.

Marshall was a military man; Kissinger an academic; Baker a lawyer. All possessed a natural ability to gauge how to move the pieces around on the board.

Effective secretaries of state are manipulators, no matter how politically incorrect this sounds. Deception is sometimes required, and they maneuver constantly, trying to figure out what's necessary to succeed and how to use incentives, pressure, arm-twisting and, when necessary, untruthfulness (either by omission or commission) to manage a crisis or close a deal.

Baker and Kissinger weren't sentimentalists. To close their Middle East deals, they trash-talked Israelis to Arabs, and Arabs to Israelis. They threatened when they had to and conceded when they had to, never losing sight of their objective or of a backdoor to get out if they couldn't accomplish it. Nice secretaries of state are usually ineffective secretaries of state.

— You need to be lucky. Karl Marx was right. Individuals make history, yet rarely as they please. Luck means being in office at a consequential moment and also at a time when U.S. diplomacy can be effective. There are endless crises abroad. Yet without one that is amenable to American suasion and power, they will continue to elude solutions. Hillary Clinton faced crises — nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, civil war in Syria, nuclear diplomacy with Iran — that simply were either not susceptible to resolution or ripe and ready enough.

Compare this with the situation that Kissinger faced after the 1973 war where the Arabs and Israelis faced real urgency and pressure to come up with an agreement; or Baker's diplomacy leading up the Madrid peace conference where the U.S. had leverage and power. Woody Allen was wrong. Eighty percent of life isn't just showing up; it's showing up at the right time.

— The president must have your back. Without this, the game is over before it begins. All presidents support their secretaries of state, but not all get the support crucial to success. Baker used to say that he was President George H.W. Bush's man at the State Department, not the State Department's man at the White House. Those two were particularly close, and it gave Baker real authority, power and street credibility. Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, on the other hand, were more competitive, though each exploited the other's talent and authority to command and marshal respect and power.

If there's daylight between the two or if it's clear that the White House isn't giving the secretary the power to take on important issues, the latter's status is diminished. The president not only needs to tell the world that his secretary of state is a trusted confidante. He also needs to demonstrate it. If Obama doesn't charge the secretary with responsibility for tackling the biggest challenges, how does he or she become truly important?

For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Obama has been a very withholding president on foreign policy. All presidents keep tight reins, particularly on matters regarding war and peace and on matters that resonate politically at home. Yet they can still empower their secretaries of state. Madeleine Albright worked for a year and half to set up an agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat that President Clinton brokered at a summit in the fall of 1998.

Obama didn't give Clinton that chance. She was a fine secretary of state in many areas: fighting for and reforming her department; pursuing a 21st-century agenda of planetary humanism (gender issues, the environment, and media and technology); and improving America's image abroad. Yet the White House owned all the crucially important issues regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, big think strategy on Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict or the U.S.- Israeli relationship. She didn't own a single one.

To deal with a withholding president, access, trust and empowerment are crucial. Without these in the secretary of state's pocket, it really won't matter all that much who's running Foggy Bottom.

So that argues for Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who among the likely suspects may be the most trusted and loyal, particularly after the beating she's taken publicly over the attack on a consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Whatever her shortcomings, undiplomatic nature and crusty exterior, she has what every secretary of state must have: a close bond with the president. If Obama decides to risk a tough confirmation fight, she's your next secretary of state. You can bet your striped pants or pants suit on it.

Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as an analyst and negotiator on the Middle East in Republican and Democratic administrations.

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