America Abroad in Obama's Second Term: Who Will Lead U.S. Diplomacy?

Will Hilary Clinton remain as Secretary of State? If not, who will replace her?

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Hilary Clinton walks past South Korean honor guards wearing traditional costumes, at a military airport in Seongnam on July 21, 2010. (Jo Yong Hak/Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who over the last four years has transformed herself from President Barack Obama's political rival into his tireless representative abroad, has long maintained that one term as the U.S. chief diplomat is enough. Here she was answering questions from CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer in March 2011:

Blitzer: If the president is reelected, do you want to serve a second term as secretary of state?
Clinton: No.
Blitzer: Would you like to serve as secretary of defense?
Clinton: No.
Blitzer: Would you like to be vice president of the United States?
Clinton: No.
Blitzer: Would you like to be president of the United States?
Clinton: No.

Having visited at least 111 countries and traveled about 1.5 million kilometers as secretary, Clinton might have an understandable point. Equally understandable, Obama is reluctant to see her go. The president has said publicly that he is doing his best to persuade her to stay on, particularly to help guide U.S. policy on the Arab Spring and events in Syria. "I don't think the secretary's plans have changed," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters at the State Department following Obama's November 6 election victory. "You've heard her say many times that she intends to see through a transition of a successor and then she will go back to private life and enjoy some rest and think and write and all those things."

The key to a good secretary of state is his or her relationship with the president, says former White House official Lawrence Haas, who is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. "The secretary of state is carrying out the policy of the president of the United States, and that is going to be true no matter who is in that position," Haas says. "And I think that Secretary Clinton has done a very good job in that realm. There has been no daylight between what Obama has said and what Clinton has tried to do."

So if Obama is unable to get Clinton to change her mind, who will fill her shoes? Several names have been mentioned as possible successors. The one that pops up most frequently is Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has been praised for his wide-ranging international contacts and his broad expertise in foreign-policy issues ranging from the Middle East to China to Russia.

The U.S. Constitution requires that cabinet appointments be approved by the Senate, which should present no problem for Kerry, who has served in that chamber since 1985. But that strength is also his weakness. With the opposition Republican Party controlling the House of Representatives and Obama's Democrats holding a slim majority in the Senate, Obama would certainly think twice about appointing a senator to the cabinet and taking the risk that a Republican might win that Senate seat in the resulting special election.
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Also reportedly in the mix is U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, a position that Obama elevated to cabinet-level status. However, Rice has been sharply criticized for comments that she made following the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. Conservatives in the United States have called for her resignation for allegedly misleading the public about the nature of the attack. If Obama nominated her, she would face tough questions during Senate confirmation hearings. In addition, she has been on the front lines of some tense interactions in the UN Security Council with Russia and China over issues like Iran, Libya, and Syria, which could mean there would be tensions for her to overcome if she became the top U.S. diplomat.

Obama's national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, is also frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Clinton. He served as the secretary of state's chief of staff in the administration of President Bill Clinton, playing important roles in negotiating the agreement that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the expansion of NATO in the late 1990s and early 2000s. "He's got broad experience in issues of foreign policy, national security policy, and I think, probably, compared to the other two, he is the best-qualified," Haas says of Donilon. "He doesn't quite have the gravitas of somebody like Senator Kerry, who would come to this job as the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but he is widely respected and he would have all the tools to do a good job, I believe."


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


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