Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bearding the lioness

“Every picture tells a story,” the man said. We’re not sure who said it first — Rod Stewart or Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera — but it’s a saying that was maybe never more true than it was on Monday morning at a press conference at Obama transition headquarters in Chicago.

At some point in the proceedings, photographer Jim Watson, of Agence France-Presse and Getty Images, took an evocative shot of three of President-elect Obama’s national security team: current-and-continuing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; national security adviser-designate James Jones; and the next secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. And therein lies the story.

Jones, standing behind Gates and Clinton, appears to be looking at both of them the way he might have eyed targets on the gunnery range all those Marine Corps years ago. Gates, about to exit the frame, seems to be concentrating elsewhere, officious, businesslike, maybe a little resigned, the old spy’s poker face intact, his eyes lowered, focused on pressing business in the middle distance.

While in the foreground, Hillary Clinton bears an expression that conveyed the gravity of the moment, the weight of her pending new responsibilities. And something more.

Look closely. Is that a look of … worry on the face of Clinton, for years the leader of her own political parade? Was it concern on the brow of Hillary? Did Jim Watson capture just the slightest suggestion of an obstacle to her political aspirations — a deer in the headlights?

Sooner or later, faces don’t lie, and at that moment the face of Hillary Clinton betrayed nothing so much as a wariness, almost a bewilderment at the speed of current events and her place in them.

See, for the first time in her long public career, Hillary Clinton is taking orders of national policy, taking direction, from a President of the United States. That never happened in the White House with Bill!

Her expression, however brief it may have been, seemed to convey her understanding of that fact. The stakes just got higher. The game has changed, and for the first time in her political career, she’s being dealt the cards instead of dealing them herself. This is terra incognita for Hillary Clinton.

At various levels of the public-policy debate, as a first lady and a senator and a candidate for the presidency, she has long been the master of her own political agenda. That ended, at least for a while, on Monday morning in Chicago.

And the potential adversary she might be the most concerned with isn’t Obama. It’s James L. Jones, Jr.

We can’t be too precise about what it is, but there’s something about the look, the presence of the former NATO supreme commander, Bronze Star recipient, Silver Star recipient, Middle East envoy and Marine Corps commandant that is compelling. We get the feeling right away: James Jones will brook no foreign-policy freelancers in the Obama White House. It’s in the cut of his jib and the authority of his resume; when this guy said “Follow me!,” manly men damn well did just that, willingly, eagerly. James Damn Jones! That’s a Soldier’s name, the name of someone you’d be proud to march with, to serve with anywhere from … from here to eternity.

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Over the top? Mea culpa. But there is a widely-held belief that Jones, besides being an able negotiator who eschews conflict, is also necessarily a capable infighter and wily to the ways of Washington, a veteran of not only the military but also the little warfares of the business and diplomatic worlds. Jones brings the gravitas of years spent abroad in the service of national interests, in several different capacities. His acumen as an administrator, his aplomb on the world stage, his sense of discipline rival Hillary Clinton’s own. If he landed on a tarmac near Kosovo, chances are pretty good he really was under fire.

The choice of James Jones for national security adviser may be the strongest signal yet of Barack Obama’s intention to correct perhaps the more perverse, and ultimately tragic, diversions of power over the last eight years. In the Obama administration, foreign policy will emanate from the White House, and nowhere else. It’s a recentralization of not just power but also philosophy of global political leverage that has been long overdue, one that (thank you, Harry S Truman) refocuses the responsibility for foreign policy on the president who devised it.

Slate's Fred Kaplan observed: "While introducing his national-security team ... Obama said that he likes to be surrounded by 'strong personalities and strong opinions.' Jones is certain to be one of them; he's not merely a staff officer; he has his own set of strong views. ... However, his main mission under Obama—and he must have known this when he agreed to take the job—will be to make sure that, once the debating is done, all those strong personalities will carry out the president's decision."

Truman’s famous desk sign read “The Buck Stops Here.” As Obama begins to follow through on the transformation of campaign pledges to presidential policies, as he returns control of foreign policy to the highest levels of the executive branch, he’s sending the signal: With all that's at stake, for all practical purposes, he is the Buck.

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James Jones knows it, and so does Hillary Clinton. But this all requires a greater experiential pivot for Clinton, being as it is a profound shift in the arc of her political ambitions. She will offer a huge and indispensable assist in the furtherance of the new national agenda vis-à-vis international relations, but the primary thrust of that agenda originates with someone else. It’s not her show any more.

Kaplan, Slate: "It is unlikely ... that Hillary Clinton has inclinations to the contrary—and not just because she appreciates Gen. Jones' bureaucratic prowess. Even accepting the critique that she is looking out above all for her own political future and legacy, she has almost certainly read enough history to know that the most renowned secretaries of state are those who lock step with their presidents—and that those who angle in dissent turn out badly."

In a way, Monday represented a kind of bearding of the lioness in a den that is not her own — and for her detractors, it’s a weird, cheap, ironical triumph to see her working for the man she failed to defeat for the presidency. But there’s no serves-you-right moment here, there’s nothing even remotely consolational about being the American secretary of state — second in the line of presidential succession in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world.

Hillary Clinton will still wield a big stick. A lot’s riding, in both the immediate future and as far away (or as soon) as 2012, on what she does with it.
Image credit: Gates, Jones and Clinton: Jim Watson, Agence France-Presse/Getty Images. Clinton: SEIU Walk a Mile In My Shoes 2008. Jones: Public domain.

1 comment:

  1. Very thorough article...I enjoy your vision of Clinton's discomfort and new adjustments.


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