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Speaking from experience

December 07, 2008|Marjorie Miller

Hillary Rodham Clinton will have no shortage of issues to take on as secretary of State. She steps into the job amid a global economic meltdown and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of that, she must address the rising tensions between India and Pakistan, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while managing complex relations with Russia and China. And there are the perennial issues of hunger and disease in Africa, drugs in Latin America and the nuclear threat worldwide. How can one person manage it all? Times editorial writer MARJORIE MILLER asked five former secretaries of State what advice they had for Clinton in her new job. What follows are edited transcripts of their counsel.

George P. Shultz

Served under President Reagan, 1982-1989

I'm a great believer in the gardening analogy. If you're gardening and you go away for six months, it's a mess. You have to pull weeds when they're small and keep track of things. The same is true in diplomacy. You've got countries of various shades of friendliness and enmity around the world, and you have to garden. You have to set an agenda, talk to people. If there are things you don't like, you have to say what they are. You do that, and when a problem comes along, you've at least laid a base and have the ability to work. You have to do that all over the world.

Sen. Clinton wants to come into office having a commitment from the president and an understanding with members of Congress that our diplomatic capability has to be built up sharply. We have to have the budget to expand the Foreign Service, to take in more new recruits. We should also look at hiring back people who retired recently from the Foreign Service. You bring people in and train them and give them experience. They get into their late 40s and early 50s, and then they leave at the height of their powers. That doesn't make any sense. You need this talent, and you want to see if you can recoup it. If you're running a big organization, if you don't take in new people, you run into big holes. Secretary Colin Powell understood that. You may be a brilliant general, but if you don't have good troops, you're not going to get anything done.

As for priorities, there are plenty of them. If you take the attitude you'll only work on things with a good probability of success, well, you can't do that. You have to work on possibilities. Anyone can write an answer to the Israel-Palestine problem, but it doesn't mean a thing. You've got to get people to agree, and that's hard. You just have to work at it, and if you work and keep things from sliding backward, you make a little progress. You make life a little better, and gradually something may emerge. Take the Irish Republican Army and Northern Ireland. No one ever thought that would be solved, but people kept working and working and eventually people got tired of killing each other, and now you have something that works.

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James A. Baker III

Served under President George H.W. Bush, 1989-1992

I was fortunate. I had been Treasury secretary for the four years before I became secretary of State. And I was chief of staff before that. So I had knowledge of many foreign policy issues and a good understanding of how Washington worked. I understood the importance of having a seamless relationship with the president. That is most important for a secretary of State, because everybody in Washington wants a piece of the foreign policy turf. Everybody has an idea about how the United States should deal with Russia or Iran. That's not so much the case at Treasury, where the issues are a bit more esoteric; not everyone is trying to get in your sandbox there. But they are at Foggy Bottom.

You must make sure you have an understanding with the president that he is going to protect your backside. You cannot be successful unless you have a president who will support you, protect you and defend you, both internationally and domestically. You need to have a clear understanding with the president that you are his principal foreign policy spokesman, formulator and implementer. There cannot be discordant voices on foreign policy. If there are, you will send mixed signals to other countries that will result in your administration being ineffectual. In public, a secretary of State should be as close to a clone of the president as possible. That doesn't mean you don't tell him in private when you disagree. Sen. Clinton is extraordinarily capable and is in a position to be a very good secretary of State as long as she has that understanding with the president that there will be no daylight between them on any foreign policy issue.

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