As the notion of Leon Panetta as Director of Central Intelligence has had time to percolate, I find myself reconsidering his suitability for the position — and, for that matter, reconsidering also the qualifications of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Both nominees have been roundly criticized for lacking appropriate experience and credentials in the areas of their prospective posts. But on further reflection, these two might just be what the departments need.
On the surface, the two have very little in common. Hillary Clinton is known for being headstrong, short-tempered, fiercely independent, controlling, and outspoken. Panetta, on the other hand, is a bit of a “wonk,” best known for his competence, loyalty, and ability to keep secrets.
But it’s what the two have in common that’s most appealing. They are both highly unlikely to “go native” at their respective agencies. Historically, places like State and the CIA have a remarkable tendency to seduce their appointed political leaders into putting the interests and agendas of the bureaucracy over the policies of the president and the good of the nation. Many a fine person has been reduced to utter ineffectiveness once they move in to Langley or Foggy Bottom.
Our current Secretary of State is a prime example. Condoleezza Rice was a renowned academic, hawkish, and part of the infamous “Vulcans” — the predominantly conservative and neoconservative group of advisors who counseled then-candidate George W. Bush on foreign policy. But since she got her top job, she’s become almost a parody of her former self.
Hillary Clinton, by her very nature, is highly unlikely to put the State Department’s ingrained bureaucracy’s agenda ahead of her own (or, possibly, that of Obama’s). Instead, she will likely command the fealty of her underlings and demand they toe her line. And woe betide any who dare openly cross her.
Panetta, at the CIA, will likely be inclined to focus on protecting Obama and pushing the Obama agenda. He will not easily fall for the traditional enticements and ploys that have captured prior CIA directors and enticed them to put the White House’s plans and priorities and policies on the back burner.
For a very long time, many people have called for a major housecleaning — or outright abolition — of the Department of State and the CIA. Neither are likely to happen, but if there are two people who are better equipped to give Foggy Bottom and Langley a brisk scrubbing and clean out the bureaucrats and career drones that have crippled our foreign policy and intelligence operations for decades, I can’t think of them.
And it could be worse, after all. Imagine, say, Joseph Wilson as Secretary of State and Valerie Plame heading up the CIA.