What Makes a Good Secretary of State? ; as Condoleezza Rice Faces Confirmation Hearing Tuesday, History Offers Many Models

By Howard LaFranchi writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

What Makes a Good Secretary of State? ; as Condoleezza Rice Faces Confirmation Hearing Tuesday, History Offers Many Models


Howard LaFranchi writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


By many accounts, Alexander Haig came off as a secretary of State more interested in his own agenda than in furthering the priorities of the president he served, Ronald Reagan.

"General Haig was enormously talented, but he was not a team player," says Lee Edwards, a Reagan scholar at the Heritage Foundation. "He would come into a cabinet meeting saying, 'We have to do this or that,' and you could tell Reagan didn't like it."

It may also be why Haig didn't last long and is not generally cited as a particularly successful occupant of America's top diplomatic post. By contrast, his successor, George Shultz, often is. For starters, Mr. Shultz took what President Reagan liked to call his "simple ideas" and got down to the business of implementing them.

With Condoleezza Rice facing Senate hearings Tuesday on her nomination as secretary of State, the question of what makes a successful captain at the helm of diplomacy is again on the Washington agenda - amplified by challenges from the Middle East to East Asia.

Different secretaries are known for different approaches, and for different strengths and weaknesses. The Shultz tenure is considered by many experts as the "golden years" of the American diplomatic corps, for the respect and closeness the secretary developed with department professionals. James Baker, secretary of State to the first President Bush, preferred on the other hand to work with a coterie of close advisers and largely disregarded the rest.

And Warren Christopher, President Clinton's first secretary of State, was considered more successful in small-group settings than when articulating policy to the public - even though one "model" of a secretary of State is to give a face and voice to US foreign policy.

"[Christopher] was a brilliant negotiator," says James Steinberg, Clinton's deputy national security adviser, "he just wasn't always the best communicator."

Past profiles vary

No single model exists for a successful secretary, experts say, largely because the president, his policies and style, and other principal foreign-policy players are such crucial variables. Then there is the influence of the events of the day.

"What worked for Nixon and Kissinger is not going to work necessarily for a Clinton or a Bush," says Mr. Steinberg, now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There's no ideal model the president should always follow."

Still, there are certain factors that more than others have determined a secretary of State's success. Chief among them, say specialists, is the secretary's relationship with the president.

"The most important factor in assuring a secretary's success is his or her relationship with the president - and on that score Condoleezza Rice is way ahead of the game," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary State. "The last secretary of State to have had such a close relationship to a president was James Baker with the first President Bush. [It] was so solid and based on such strong ties that it was unshakable."

Mr. Inderfurth, now teaching a course on secretaries of State at George Washington University, says such a bond - which Rice has developed with George W. Bush since serving as his chief foreign policy adviser in the 2000 campaign, as his national security adviser, and as a fellow sports fanatic - is an advantage that other administration foreign-policy heavyweights are unlikely to disregard.

"It's something Colin Powell did not have and was unable to acquire," he says.

At the same time, such closeness carries certain responsibilities, others note, such as being the one to confront the president with new ideas and options - even to let him know when he's going in a wrong direction. …

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