Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Brain Trust

One of the things that characterized the Reagan Administration was its domination by the cabinet. It was widely believed that Ronald Reagan was more of a mediator among cabinet secretaries than the actual executive in charge. He was sometimes described as functioning as a chairman of the board rather than a president.

One doesn't know whether is just breathless hype by a partisan and not-yet-disappointed media corps or an actual fact, but it is said that Obama's appointments to the highest echelons of the administration are the brightest and most accomplished ever. (Kennedy once famously quipped that the assembled elite were the greatest assemblage of brains and talent in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.) Whether Obama governs, or mediates among those who do, it is in any case clear that the cabinet will loom large in the new administration.

What emerged in the course of the Reagan Administration is that cabinet government is vulnerable to factionalism. The struggles within the administration were not over pride of place and parking spaces. They went to core issues of domestic and foreign policy. As a friend of Israel I remember poignantly the struggle between the Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, a vitriolic enemy of Israel, and the Secretary of State, George Schultz. For several years Weinberger prevailed. He used his office to violate treaties with Israel, to delay and divert aid authorized by Congress, and arranged the judicial murder of Jonathan Pollard. In the end, after friction with Congress and repeated embarrassments of Weinberger by his Arab proteges, Schultz prevailed.

If Obama's cabinet-level appointments are as distinguished as the media tell us, we can expect some version of that factionalism within the Obama Administration from beginning to end. Wrangling and in-fighting are not governing. They are the opposite. The next few months will show us whether or not the quality of the appointments is too much of a good thing.

I cannot speak to the credentials of other appointments, but I am unimpressed with the appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The appointment is political rather than based on merit. Senator Clinton's direct participation in government during her husband's administration was on health care reform, not foreign policy. And she botched even that and had to be muzzled for the remainder of her husband's term in office.

Compare Condoleeza Rice who was a leading scholar and analyst in several areas of foreign policy at Stanford's Hoover Institute. Bush may not be the best and brightest, but Rice is. She inflicted diplomatic defeat after diplomatic defeat on France, starting from an unpopular position on Iraq. That is the mark of an intelligent, skilled diplomat. She repeatedly turned Bush's sow's ear of a war into a silk purse of diplomatic victory.

I do not foresee Mrs. Clinton having the same success. Unfortunately, since she was not appointed for her abilities, it will be all the harder to dismiss her for her lack of them.

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