Hijacks, Hijinks, History and Hillary

Over the past year I have been commissioned to produce a number of papers on the current state of affairs in the United States for the publication, Political Insight. 

I am pleased to present the second of these for you here:

Hijacks, Hijinks, History and Hillary

I hope you enjoy it

The Tweet That Will Be Heard Around The World

Later today, the worst kept secret in US politics will be unveiled: Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady, former Senator, former Secretary of State, will once more seek the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President of the United States.

She has been here before, of course. In 2007 she was most peoples’ expected nominee and therefore, choice to be president. Who had ever heard of this upstart from Chicago? Barack who? Never heard of him….

Some 7 years later and things are looking interesting once more for the former Goldwater Girl. She stands at a tantalizing place in her own life and in the history of her country. Unlike 7 years ago, this is undeniably her last roll of the dice. At 67, and now a grandmother, there are no more roles to play, no more election cycles to wait out in the hope of another crack at the golden ring. This is it, which is why when I have been asked repeatedly over the last 4 years, ‘Will Hillary run?’ my response has been: ‘She is already running, and why wouldn’t she? She has no where else to go, and no time to waste.’

Hillary’s opportunity in 2015 is to present the 2016 election as an opportunity to do for gender politics what Obama did for racial politics in 2008. She must make this about an opportunity to elect the first women president, not the third Bush president. In doing so, it will be fascinating to see how Hillary presents herself to the electorate. In previous campaigns she has sought to outdo her male colleagues in terms of appearance and posture: All pantsuits and policy. There are signs this may be changing. Her appearance has altered in recent weeks, and her family are currently gracing the covers of Elle and Town and Country. This is no coincidence. If Hillary campaigns as a woman, not as a politician, it will be fascinating to see if this makes her more accessible to the electorate, which was always her biggest challenge. She has the brains, but her husband has all the charm. She needs to channel as much of this as possible over the next 18 months.

Hillary’s challenge will be to overcome the mistakes of her last campaign. She was caught flat-footed by Obama’s early candidacy and by his reputation for generating a fortune from grassroots supporters (notwithstanding the far larger fortune he quietly secured from corporate America). She is clearly seeking to get out the traps early and hit the ground running in Iowa, where she will file her papers shortly. However, she must not rely upon last cycle’s technology to win next year’s election. The suggestion that she will announce her candidacy on-line, in a tweet and perhaps a video plays into the hands of those who portray her as aloof, removed from the electorate and far too much of a presumptive nominee. Retail politics is king in the primaries. If she is perceived as being the electronic candidate she will struggle and provide an opportunity for a home-grown, done-to-earth, flesh and blood candidate to emerge and inflict grave damage on her campaign. A little like happened in 1992 with a smooth, charming, ah-shucks governor from Arkansas. Who’d have thought it?

Indeed the contrast with her husband’s run in 1992 is striking. As I detail in Clinton’s Grand Strategy, Bill Clinton didn’t announce his campaign until October 1991, only a matter of months before the first votes were cast in Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, his wife is announcing her candidacy in the sun and the spring of 2015, 10 months before the polls open in the snow and ice of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Hillary’s announcement, the Tweet that Will be Heard Around The World, is her last, best shot at securing a real place in history in her own right. Not as her husbands’ wife, not as a junior senator from New York, not as Obama’s Secretary of State, but as the first Woman President of the United States. That must surely be her place in the lexicon of American politics and the journey to that auspicious place in history begins anew today….

JDB on Marco Rubio at Chatham House

Senator Marco Rubio spoke at Chatham House on December 3, firmly establishing the think tank as the destination of choice for visiting American politicians eager to establish an international reputation ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Following hot on the heels of former Secretary of State, former senator, former First Lady of the United States (and Arkansas for that matter) Hillary (sometimes Rodham) Clinton, the visit of Senator Rubio marks London as the new epicentre of an emerging International Primary, designed to raise their profiles ahead of Ohio and New Hampshire.


In a 30-minute address, Senator Rubio provided a wide-ranging vision of the future direction that US foreign policy should take, addressing the Special Relationship and Washington’s dealings with a variety of nations, leaders and locations. In a solid, workman like address, Rubio discussed Iran, Russia, China, the UK and the development of EU-US trade ties. The defence and advocacy of Liberty was at the heart of the talk and was returned to time and again as Rubio threaded a narrative of US commitments and responsibilities through a series of locals, events, and personalities.

Rubio was steadfast in his positions in regard to Iran and Russia. As a member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he forecast that bi-partisan legislation would be presented as early as next week that would increase pressure on Iran, at the same time that the Obama administration is seeking a rapprochement with Tehran. Rubio remains convinced that Iran is merely using the discussions as a delaying tactic to enable it to achieve an enrichment capacity and that a nuclear empowered Iran would begin a regional arms race. Putin’s Russia also came in for heavy, repeated criticism, as the senator took issue with the manner in which it was seeking to use energy supplies to exert influence over Central and Eastern Europe, and the manner in which Ukraine was being weakened as a result.


In response to a series of questions, coordinated with the usual grace by Chatham House Director Robin Niblett, Senator Rubio was adamant that while he believes in the concept of Medicare and Medicaid, the mandated spending programs as presently constructed are financially unsustainable. Addressing these issues, however, will require more than charm and youthful vigour, for they remain the third rail in American domestic politics. Rubio advocated the reductions in trade tariffs that would accompany the potential TTIP framework, while acknowledging that the US would struggle to accept much of the EU regulatory frameworks on international trade and commerce. Rubio declared that the United States needs a strong European Union but that it must respect the UK’s decision with regard to its continued membership.

Returning to foreign policy, Rubio was quick to dismiss talk of ‘hawks and doves’ as being an outdated division in the 21st century. He advocated the use of diplomacy, foreign aid and soft power in US foreign activities and stressed that for Americans, foreign policy was domestic policy. While stressing that he did not believe that the president was required to seek Congressional approval for a course of action, Rubio presented a concise explanation for his lack of support for Obama over Syria. As he had mentioned previously Rubio had sought US involvement for 2 years, during which he had advocated allying with moderate opposition forces that now appear to have dissipated; he opposed the limited engagement that the president had called for; and he found the plans lacking in direction. Worryingly, however, he made reference to ‘the forces of darkness and evil’, language that is all too reminiscent of a recent president whose lack of nuance was portrayed as mere naivety. This is one area where progress needs to be made in the coming months.


This was then was a sold delivery, though not without the occasional misstep; a speech that was read, rather than delivered. It was a shopping list of ideas and aspirations, designed in part to tell an audience what they wanted to hear; a speech that quoted both Reagan and Thatcher and even made reference to One Direction.

Rubio was adamant that in a season of doubt, the United States remained vigilant and ready to lead. He noted the 6 decades of declinist talk and of the various world powers that had been predicted to assume the mantle of global leadership, all of whom had failed to rise to the occasion. With the revolution in US energy production and forecasts of its future as an energy exporter, Rubio was certain that the future was indeed a bright one.

As the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has a fascinating narrative and is well positioned to take full advantage of his heritage, youth, and position as senator for the key state of Florida heading into 2016. Accordingly, this visit was all about establishing international credibility and elevating the senator in the eyes of potential kingmakers in the GOP. Senior parliamentarians with whom he met were understood to have been impressed, although those who had not met with him were heard to mutter in the corridors of power ‘Isn’t he a bit of a nutter?’ Well, the simple answer is, no, he isn’t, and it is concerning that such a view was being aired so openly. Whilst the depth of the senator’s grasp of the issues was never tested, his breadth of knowledge and the span of the talk were more than sufficient.

Cuba was mentioned just once, clearly signalling that Rubio is seeking to position himself not as the Cuban candidate, but simply as a candidate who happens to be of Cuban extraction. He will, doubtless, reap an electoral windfall from the huge influx of Latino voters who are expected to form a huge voting bloc in 2016. One wonders in what capacity London will next welcome Marco Rubio to these shores?



Obama’s Foreign Policy Team Emerges With Reputations Damaged

In November 2012, Barack Obama won re-election to a second term as President of the United States. Since then, many have been eagerly awaiting confirmation as to who he would name to the key foreign policy positions in his administration: State, Defence, NSC, CIA etc. Some of this anticipation could be explained as the idle musings of those fascinated by the revolving door of power in Washington, but more importantly, the announcements would carry weight as it is people who make policy and so the decision as to whom to appoint would say much about the president, his view of the world and his priorities for his second term.

What has emerged can safely be described as having NOT been Obama’s first choice line-up and has taken far longer than expected to emerge. These two aspects are NOT unrelated as the timing of the announcements and the individuals named have been impacted by a series of unforeseen incidents that could have long-term implications, and stretch well into Obama’s second term. In planning for his anticipated second-term, it is safe to conclude that Barack Obama anticipated naming Dr. Susan Rice as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as Secretary of State and to continue with David Petraeus as DCI. The fact that neither individual will be in their anticipated position come Inauguration Day owes much to the debacle in Benghazi, a calamity that will continue to dog Obama into 2013. It will certainly be an issue for Hillary Clinton if she considers a run for the presidency in 2016. Her role as Secretary of State at the time of the incident and subsequent incapacity, which has prevented her from testifying in the subject, will doubtless be open to scrutiny in 4 years time.

The president’s inability to name Susan Rice to the State Department was based in large part on the administration’s decision to wheel her out on the Sunday morning talk shows to explain that the Benghazi uprising, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, was a spontaneous uprising caused by revulsion to an anti-Islamic film. Ironically, it appears certain that part of the reason for allocating this task to Ambassador Rice was an attempt to elevate her visibility and stature ahead of the nomination process in an anticipated second-term. If this was the case then it spectacularly backfired, casing senators to openly question her suitability for the role, and allowing other questions to be raised in relation to her political and personal qualities. The long-drawn out saga as to whether she remained a viable candidate for the State Department was exacerbated by the president’s overly personal attachment to the candidate, as expressed in a press conference shortly after his re-election and ended only when Rice publicly withdrew her name from consideration.

This debacle was compounded by the Love-Pentagon within the administration that centred on DCI Petraeus. Having promoted General David Petraeus out of uniform and into the top job at Langley to remove him as a potential political challenge, Obama had given no indication that he intended to replace him after such a short time in the role. Yet within days of the election came news of Petraeus’ resignation due to an affair with his biographer. It was apparent, therefore, within hours of the ballot being counted that the foundations of Obama’s anticipated foreign policy team for this second term was in tatters; hence the delay in an announcements. Now that the names have been released, what conclusions can we draw?

Dr. Susan Rice appears set to remain as Ambassador to the United Nations. She will doubtless be chastened by her experience and realise that her best hope to become America’s top diplomat has gone up in smoke. Don’t feel too sorry for her, however, as she will retain one of the top perks of any executive branch officer; a grace and favour suite on the forty-second floor of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. She will presumably remain in post until an opening emerges later in the second term that will not require a Senate confirmation hearing. Happily for her such a position is eminently possible, since it appears certain that Obama will continue to employ the services of Tom Donilon as his National Security Advisor, having been named to the post in October 2010. Few expect his to remain in this position for the duration of Obama’s second term, however, and as the role does not require senate confirmation it would be a natural fit for Dr. Rice, perhaps in 2014? It will not afford her the elevated status she would have anticipated in the Obama administration, but it would ensure her continued presence at the centre of Democratic Party national security circles, especially as eyes turn to the next presidential election.

With Dr. Rice unable to be nominated as Secretary of State, Obama has turned instead to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, best known to the outside world as the man who failed to beat George W. Bush in the 2004 election. As a steadfast and reliable member of the United States Senate since his election in 1984 and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry would appear to be a safe pair of hands to take over at the State Department once Hillary Clinton departs. Like Hillary, Kerry will be a well-known public face with a long-standing record of public service, a distinguished war record in Vietnam and with an excellent appreciation of the nation, its place in the world and its foreign relations. As one would expect from a senator from Massachusetts, his voting record is generally to the left, but this is not expected to be of any great significance when he (presumably) takes office. There is speculation that he could enhance the concept of digital diplomacy, which would be a boost tot his concept. However one considers his candidacy, Kerry appears to be a man that the world can do business with, and whom Barack Obama owes a great deal, following his invitation to address the 2004 Democratic convention.

Joining Kerry around the Cabinet table will be a Republican, Charles ‘Chuck’ Hagel, whose nomination will likely be far more robust. Hagel’s nomination is Obama’s attempt at bi-partisanship, a concept that received a great deal of lip-service on the campaign trail, but which has been little evidenced in the first term or in subsequent events. As a former Republican senator, Hagel’s nomination carries echoes of Bill Clinton’s decision to name William Cohen in his second term, again following criticism of a lack of bi-partisanship in his first term. It must be galling to defence-minded Democrats that time and again, their party’s presidents name Republicans to the top job at the Pentagon! Hagel’s nomination has already been challenged by those who question his stance on Israel, Iraq and on gay rights. He has been an outspoken critic of the George W. Bush administration and there will be those who will be looking to repay him for this perceived betrayal of Republican principles. Likewise, his critique of the Israel/Jewish Lobby has generated a great deal of heat and this powerful cocktail of issues ensures he has opponents on both the left and the right of American politics! Whilst the veracity of many of these claims can be discounted, this combination will doubtless make for colourful confirmation hearings in coming days!

Rounding out the foreign policy team will be DCI designate, John O. Brennan, who has been a key advisor to President Obama in his first term as Counterterrorism Advisor. (Brennan’s importance to Obama is perfectly captured in Daniel Klaidman’s excellent expose Kill or Capture). Despite his importance to Obama thus far, his nomination could join Hagel’s in creating a storm of protest from both the left and the right. Republicans will doubtless recall Brennan’s appearance on Meet the Press in which he lamented their use of terrorism as a political football, whilst Democrats will recoil at his defence of rendition, drone strikes and enhanced interrogation methods. The nomination is an interesting move by Obama, who considered Brennan for the same role 4 years ago. As a key aide in the White House, Obama could find that he misses Brennan’s close counsel, whilst Brennan could well discover, as Bill Casey did, that previous service at the Agency does not guarantee a smooth ride as DCI.

Despite the controversies that surround these nominations, I anticipate that they will receive senate confirmation and take their place around the Cabinet table for the requisite photo-shoot following the Inauguration ceremonies this January. After that, it will be up to them to repay the trust that has been placed in them.

Overcooked Rice

So, after weeks of speculation it now appears certain that the next Secretary of State will…. Not be Susan Rice. In a surprise move the current US Ambassador to the United Nations has written to President Obama, asking that her name be removed from consideration for the position. Note that she has not been withdrawn from the nomination, as she had yet to be nominated for anything. For weeks she has been in a political twilight zone; a presumptive nominee, if you will. This is, therefore, a pre-emptive withdrawal in certain expectation of a disastrous Senate confirmation hearing that promised to pitch the White House against the forces of Lindsay Graham and John McCain, who is set to join the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee ahead of the nomination process. One wonders if this news was a tipping point for the White House and for Rice’s prospects.

This nomination process has been presented in some quarters as political posturing run amok, but it is vital to recall that the United States Senate has the constitutional authority and responsibility to approve presidential appointments of this nature and it is clear that Rice has serious questions to answer in key areas, not least of which is the debacle that occurred in Benghazi, for which she may well become the administration’s unwitting fall-girl.

Beyond this, however, profound doubts have been raised about Rice’s temperament. For someone on the apparent cusp of being appointed American’s chief diplomat to be thought of as ‘ un-diplomatic, aggressive and brusque’, as was recently mentioned on The Daily Beast, is far from complementary. Her decision to ‘give the finger’ to Richard Holbrooke has clearly not been forgotten, and even if the former ambassador is not around to remind anyone of this incident, in Washington, DC, memories linger of such incidents.

Rice’s letter to Obama this evening does not mean that she will not serve in a second term. She remains the US Ambassador to the UN and could remain in this position, or possibly be named National Security Adviser, a post that does not require Senate confirmation.

With Rice now no longer in the running for the State Department, the question remains as to who will fill Hillary Clinton’s pumps. The delay in naming a foreign policy team has been remarkable and it appears clear now that this was due to the refusal of key Republicans to countenance the thought of Susan Rice as Secretary of State. Second terms often get second-rate teams, and this could be the case again. Instead, it now appears likely that a white male could return to the role for the first time since Warren Christopher (remember him? No, I didn’t think so) stood down at the end of Clinton’s first term.

The smart money is on Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The problem with this is that it would necessitate a Special election to replace him until the midterms of 2014 and whilst the state is heavily Democratic, Scott Brown’s upset victory following the death of Edward Kennedy demonstrates that the Democrats can take nothing for granted (unless they can find another Kennedy to run, perhaps?)

So, the shadow of Benghazi has now crept over Obama’s second term, before it has had time to begin. The scandal did not appear to influence the election result, but it has already claimed its first victim. It is worth noting that presidential scandals have traditionally occurred in the much sought after second term, and have been caused by an event in the later stages of the first term. If alarm bells are not yet ringing in the West Wing of the White House, then they should be. The second term is about to begin…It’s about to get a whole lot more interesting folks!

A Second Rate Team for Obama’s Second Term?

Having spent the best part of the last year working to secure his re-election, Barack Obama can now return to his day job. The lull in US involvement in the international arena ends now and is more likely to be more assertive in a second term. If the Obama team has learnt anything in its first term, it is that talk is cheap and often ignored. The historic address at Cairo University promised much, but delivered little and helped lead to a drop in US support in the region. Obama may have proved his ability to charm the American electorate, but he will be unable to apply this to the Mullah’s in Iran or to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose actions threaten to overshadow Obama’s second term in office.

With so much at stake in the world, a major decision needs to be announced as to whom Obama will appoint to lead America’s over sea’s endeavors. Any second term administration witnesses a major shake up in personnel, and this is to be expected. What is less expected is the time that is being taken to make any such announcements.

The sudden departure of General Petraeus will present the President with an un-necessary headache as he is forced to address one extra office to fill, which presumable he had not expected to need to focus upon. The fallout from this departure also threatens to cast an ill light over the new administration, its foreign policy team and raise further questions in regard to the events in Benghazi, upon which Petraeus was scheduled to testify, prior to his resignation.

The Key positions will be at the Pentagon and the State Department. At State the easy move would be to promote from within, as traditionally occurs in second term administrations. Alas, second term can also mean second rate, as the top players move on to be replaced by their underlings. The emerging consensus is that Susan Rice, currently the US representative at the UN is likely to become Secretary of State, continuing a trend that began with Madeleine Albright. Where this to occur, those reaching voting age in 2014 would have lived their entire lives without a white male Secretary of State.

With Hillary Clinton’s imminent departure, President Obama could well decide to be his own Secretary of State, especially if he elects to focus on international affairs in his remaining time in office. As such he could afford to appoint a less high profile individual to the post, although whether Susan Rice carries the credibility necessary for this office is open to speculation.

One name that is generating a great deal of attention is John Kerry. Having lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush, Kerry has been openly supportive of Obama’s bid to reduce nuclear stockpiles and as such could be a strong contender for the job at the State Department. Where this to happen, the question would arise as to where Rice would move; The NSC is a possibility.

What appears unlikely is a repeat of Obama’s first term effort to appoint a series of high profile envoys to the world’s trouble spots. Despite the apparent genius of this idea, the initiative appears to have been a failure, with Senator Mitchell resigning and Dick Holbrooke managing to alienate all and sundry before passing away in post. His was a tragic case of personality impacting negatively upon his gifts and, therefore, never achieving the top positions that he and his supporters believed him capable of.

In regard to the top job at the Defense Department, President Obama would be well advised to follow the precedent set by Bill Clinton, who reached across the political aisle in his second term and appointed a Republican to the top job at the Pentagon. This would solve the problem of a rather weak bench of Democratic candidates to chose from. Where he to do so he could also earn some much needed respect from members of Congress whom he desperately needs to woo in order to get any budgetary proposals passed in a second term.

Were Obama to follow this Clinton model, the options are intriguing. Could he for example, move to appoint Colin Powell? The logic in this appears apparent, after all Powell did endorse Obama for the re-election and has a respected military background. However, Powell has already served as Secretary of State and it would be most unusual to return to a cabinet in a reduced capacity. For this reason, I believe that this option can be discounted, although a role for Powell could still be found in an Obama White House. Other Republican options include Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar, who may appear more likely considering Powell’s previous record of services.

Whoever gets the nod to these top positions, however, in Obama’s second term, and with a presidential legacy to be secured, there will only be one star on the team: President Barack Obama.

Presidential Leadership: Consistency Required

True leadership involves assuming responsibility in bad times as well as in good. As President Kennedy noted in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, widely seen as being a ‘perfect failure’ in US foreign policy, “success has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.” Despite the abject failure of the initiative he had inherited from Eisenhower and Nixon, Kennedy refused to allow anyone else assume to responsibility, telling the American public that he was categorically responsible for the failings.

Kennedy’s performance should be required for all aspiring politicians. Having made an error of judgement his timely public statement on the issue and refusal to blame others for his errors won him the support of the American electorate and his approval ratings actually increased. (“It’s like Eisenhower,” he quipped, “the worse I do the more popular I am!”

Not all American presidents are so smart. Despite his public adulation for the late president, Bill Clinton appeared not to have learnt this vital lesson when his Attorney General, Janet Reno, assumed public responsibility for the Waco fiasco. In a cabinet dominated by men, it was America’s first female Attorney General who appeared the most courageous by assuming responsibility. In contrast, Bill Clinton’s dithering on the issues appeared timid at best, and did little to inspire confidence in his leadership early in his presidency.

Some twenty years later, another Clinton finds themselves at the centre of a similar storm. For several days, speculation has mounted that President Obama was seeking to allocate blame for the Benghazi tragedy firmly at the door of the State Department. The Internet has been awash with observations as to how Hillary Clinton would react to being thrown ‘under the bus.’ The popularly held belief was that she wouldn’t stand for it. However, in the hours leading up to the second presidential election, Hillary took one for the team and declared that she was responsible.

This is an admirable, though shortsighted effort on her behalf. It demonstrates a very admirable ability to assume responsibility and be seen as a team player, which of course, many have questioned in her determination and drive to become the first female president. However, it may backfire in ways that could damage both her own presidential ambitions as well as those of her boss, Barack Obama.

By taking responsibility Hillary has placed herself squarely in the firing line for the administration’s critics and ensures that if she runs in 2016 this could come back to haunt her. More immediately, her announcement, which must surely have been signed off by the White House presents the president in a poor light. In his eagerness to allocate blame ahead of his debate with Mitt Romney, Obama has ensured that he will now be covering behind Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit, hardly an inspiring sight in a would-be Commander In Chief.

The move actually increased the pressure on the president going into this week’s debate. If he had responded to Romney’s attacks on the Benghazi tragedy by blaming Hillary, he would have appeared weak. However, when asked directly who refused the extra security in Libya, Obama’s answer was retrospective and failed to address the specific question. Instead, he asserted his responsibility, which completely contradicted the statement issued by the Secretary of State. When asked directly if the buck stopped with Hillary Clinton, Obama again insisted, “she works for me, I’m the president and I’m always responsible.” In doing so President Obama merely continued the process of sending mixed signals and further muddy the water’s of responsibility on the issue.

The president needs to take a look at the lessons from the Bay of Pigs and assert unambiguous leadership, not leave questions of responsibility to be pondered in time of national tragedy.