'Who's in charge' question looms over Clinton hearing

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 12, 2009 

WASHINGTON — As she prepares to take over stewardship of U.S. foreign policy, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton is assembling a team with star power, experience and big egos — the same qualities that her boss, President-elect Barack Obama has sought out for his White House national security team.

If Obama, Clinton and their teams see eye to eye, they could aggressively remake U.S. relations: repairing frayed ties with European allies, channeling tensions that have built up with Russia, and opening a more cordial relationship with the Islamic world.

But if the lines of authority are not clear, the result could be internecine conflict between the White House and the State Department of the sort that plagued both Democratic and Republican administrations of the past, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The question, "who's in charge," will be in the background when the former New York senator appears Tuesday for what's expected to be a friendly reception from her colleagues and a rapid confirmation in the new post. But it will be central to her success or failure as secretary of state.

"This is a really formidable team," said David Rothkopf, a senior Commerce Department official under President Bill Clinton and author of a history of the National Security Council, speaking of Obama's overall appointments.

"The challenge is providing strong leadership for a strong team," Rothkopf said. On the other hand, he added, "What do you want — a weak team . . . so there are no rivalries?"

Rothkopf said the key will be for Obama, who takes office saddled with an array of urgent foreign policy challenges, to exert strong control over foreign policy, and over his team.

If he does that, "then all these appointments look good," he said. If not, "it could . . . create ego gridlock in the highest reaches of the U.S. policy apparatus."

She is likely to face polite questioning about potential conflicts of interest arising from her husband's charitable foundation. Its top donors include the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Norway. The foundation, which had kept donors' names private, published them last month to remove a roadblock to Hillary Clinton's confirmation.

The secretary of state-designate is certain to also get questions about how she intends to handle Middle East diplomacy against a backdrop of Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip, and on policy toward Iran, where she took a more hawkish line than Obama did during the campaign.

Clinton's team includes many veterans of the White House and State Department when Bill Clinton was president. James Steinberg and Jacob Lew, both veterans of the Clinton administration, are being nominated to the two posts of deputy secretary of state, Steinberg for policy and Lew for management and budget issues.

Clinton also plans to name former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, known for his sharp bureaucratic elbows, as a special envoy to oversee policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Former Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross is expected to oversee diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict and to deal with Iran. Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, is a leading candidate to be assistant secretary of state for the Near East.

Wendy Sherman, who was a top aide to Clinton's second secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, is rumored for a job overseeing North Korea policy.

Over at the White House, meanwhile, President-elect Obama is putting in place a high-powered National Security Council staff led by retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the incoming national security adviser.

Obama's vice president-elect, Sen. Joseph Biden, is a foreign policy veteran, with strong views and personal connections around the globe.

"The structure is going to be complicated to say the least," said a foreign diplomat in Washington.

A Foreign Relations Committee vote to send her nomination to the full Senate could come as early as Thursday.

Frederick Jones, a spokesman for incoming committee chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said "I don't think he (the chairman) is anticipating any major hurdles " in the confirmation process.

Republicans on the panel, such as conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., have also publicly expressed support for Clinton.

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