Obama's Former Rival Chosen as Secretary of State

The former first lady trades in her Senate seat for a foreign policy minefield.

December 1, 2008, 6:25 PM

Dec. 1, 2008— -- Hillary Clinton has her work cut out for her.

President-elect Obama's choice to be America's next top diplomat will inherit a foreign policy minefield, including two wars in the Middle East, a floundering Israeli-Palestinian peace process, deteriorated relations with Russia, a China ascending toward hegemony, a Pakistan descending into violence, a tenuous negotiation with North Korea, an almost-nuclear Iran and tension between Washington and several Latin American capitals.

But her efforts will also likely be complicated by her past rivalry with Obama. Both the media and foreign governments are likely to scrutinize her every word for signs of substantive or tonal differences with the president.

If Clinton is perceived as being on a different page than her boss, it may complicate her efforts to advance the administration's foreign policy agenda.

The Bush administration engaged in a furious push in the past year to complete its foreign policy objectives before leaving office. But many will fall to the Obama administration and will top Clinton's to-do list from day one.

The Bush administration has been defined more by the wars it started in Iraq and Afghanistan than by any other foreign policy initiative. The administration recently negotiated a deal with the Iraqi government that sets a deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal by the end of 2011.

It will now fall to Clinton and the rest of President-elect Obama's national security team to oversee the challenge of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, one of Obama's central campaign promises, while continuing work to build the capacity of Iraq's government and security forces.

In Afghanistan, the Bush administration is engaged in an 11th-hour policy review that will attempt to forge a new strategy to fight al Qaeda and a resurgent Taliban that operates along the lawless border with Pakistan. Its intention to boost resources there have been hampered by the demands of the Iraq war and a Pakistani government that has been reluctant to cooperate in efforts to go after the militants on its soil.

During the campaign, Obama promised to pursue terrorists wherever they hide, and said he would not hesitate to attack them inside Pakistan. The Bush administration has recently begun to implement a similar policy. But it has been met by opposition from the Pakistani government and will require a delicate diplomatic hand if Obama plans to continue the strategy in his administration.

In November 2007, President Bush hosted a major summit to jump start a stalled Mideast peace process. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally took the lead in brokering talks between both sides, making eight trips to the region in 2008, including one with Bush. Despite her efforts, however, she will leave office without a peace deal after an Israeli political crisis sidetracked the talks. Though she and Bush will become the latest American leaders who tried, and ultimately failed, to bring lasting peace to the Holy Land, the Bush administration will leave in place a negotiating framework that did not exist a year ago.

Obama pledged to focus on advancing the peace talks, but any immediate progress will have to wait until Israel chooses its next prime minister in 2009.

Although the Bush administration was criticized for a unilateral approach to foreign policy during its first term, Bush's second term has been an exercise in diplomacy as the United States focused on multilateral negotiations to rid North Korea of its nuclear arsenal and to prevent Iran from obtaining one.

The talks with North Korea have produced some results but are frequently hamstrung by North Korean objections at the start of each successive phase. Talks with Iran have produced no results and the administration has resorted to United Nations and unilateral sanctions to pressure Tehran. Neither matter will be resolved before Obama takes the oath of office, and both will require his immediate attention to ensure they do not regress. Already, agreements with North Korea have shown signs of fraying.

In perhaps his most significant break in U.S. foreign policy to date, Obama said he would be willing to meet with Iran's leaders without preconditions.

Relations with several world powers are also strained. Relations with Russia have sunk to lows not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, particularly since Moscow's war with Georgia, a U.S. ally, last summer. The United States also remains wary of China, which has flexed its economic muscles and continued to grow its military capability. Relations with a number of countries in the Western Hemisphere aren't much better. Venezuela to Bolivia have halted counter-narcotics cooperation and threatened to sever ties with Washington, altogether.

During his campaign, Obama promised to re-introduce the United States to the world, aiming to restore relations that were damaged over disagreements on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which the president-elect opposed.

To prepare for the challenges that await her in Foggy Bottom, the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where the Department of State is headquartered, Clinton will have to work quickly to assemble a foreign policy team before Inauguration Day.

All political appointees and ambassadors are required to submit their resignations at the end of the Bush administration, including career employees working in appointed positions. Each bureau and office has identified a career official to lead until a replacement is installed. But Clinton will have to make sure a team is nominated and, if necessary, confirmed quickly to avoid any lapse in critical areas.

It's a full plate, to be sure, and Clinton will have to hit the ground running.

"The Department of State will do everything that we can, and I personally will do everything that we can -- that I can, to make sure that this is a smooth transition," Rice promised the day after Obama was elected.

Rice has already met with the leaders of Obama's State Department transition team and aides say she stands ready to meet them and her successor, if asked.

The State Department has readied 5,300 square feet of office space for Obama's foreign policy transition team, and has dedicated 24 staffers, led by three senior career officials, to assist the Obama transition team with paperwork and other bureaucratic work. Clearance processes for staffers on both the Obama and McCain campaigns began before Election Day to ensure the new team could begin as soon as possible.

The department has prepared briefing books from each bureau and office for the incoming team, offering details on everything from department procedures and budgets to policy and situational updates. Rice and other top officials will also be available to brief the incoming team in person.

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