The critical pick: secretary of State

The next secretary faces huge challenges. McCain and Obama must choose carefully.

As the party conventions draw near, there has been a flurry of media speculation about the McCain and Obama choices for vice president.

Yet an arguably more important choice is the next secretary of State.

For the most part, the vice presidency is a kind of understudy-in-waiting job, charged with a few ceremonial chores.

To be sure, Dick Cheney has wielded considerable influence and power behind the scenes as VP. But it is doubtful whether either Senator McCain's or Senator Obama's No. 2 would exert the same kind of authority. Mr. McCain is a confident practitioner of politics and foreign policy. Mr. Obama is a superstar who keeps his advisers under tight control. Neither man will seek a VP likely to upstage him.

The world the new president will confront is a restless one. India and China are ascendant. Russia, as we have seen recently in Georgia, seeks renewed territorial influence. Islamic lands simmer. Iran threatens.

That's why the secretary of State – the individual who has the president's ear on foreign policy, and who implements it – is so important to the next administration.

Who might fill this vital role?

Obama has assembled in his presidential campaign a team of several hundred foreign policy advisers.

They include such experts as Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of State for African affairs; Dennis Ross, a skilled negotiator in Middle Eastern affairs, who served the first President Bush and President Clinton; Tony Lake, national security adviser in the Clinton administration; and seasoned politicians with international expertise such as former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton.

At more elevated levels, and perhaps less involved in day-to-day operations, are former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, and former Secretary of Defense William Perry.

As perhaps befits someone more confident in the arena of foreign affairs, McCain has a smaller team of advisers.

They include Richard Armitage, a former assistant secretary of State and Defense official; Robert Kagan, a conservative scholar with the Carnegie Endowment and a prolific writer of articles and books on foreign affairs; and former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz.

Having served in five cabinet posts in different administrations, Mr. Shultz is unlikely to seek office again, but he has all the qualities a president should demand in a secretary of State (Conflict declared: I worked for Shultz in the Reagan administration and admire him).

He is a true-blue loyalist to the man he serves. When lesser White House officials tried to impose a lie-detector test on every cabinet minister, Shultz refused, declaring: "The day my loyalty is in question, I resign." The White House backed down.

He is a man of integrity. When considering some major new foreign-policy move, he would gather four or five of his top advisers and ask all of them their views. The congressional aide would forecast likely congressional reaction. I would predict probable media response. Then he would look at us and say: "Now what is the RIGHT thing to do?"

He is a steady and peaceful man, slow to anger. But nothing was likely to spark that anger more than some incident involving man's inhumanity to man.

In the Obama camp, speculation about the new secretary of State includes Sen. Joe Biden, who may also be on a VP list. Richard Holbrooke was a skilled negotiator in the Balkans but his time may have passed.

My choice would be Dennis Ross, the patient Middle East negotiator. My second choice would be New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has successfully concluded a number of difficult international negotiations.

In the McCain camp, Condoleezza Rice would be a worthy addition to the new team but is unlikely to be carried over. McCain could opt for one of several experienced international hands such as Indiana's Sen. Richard Lugar.

My choice would be Robert Gates, the current secretary of Defense. Mr. Gates is an advocate of a strong military supplemented by vigorous "soft power," or public diplomacy, and economic aid. Remarkable for a secretary of Defense, he has argued that the State Department is under-budgeted and understaffed.

A new secretary of State will face major challenges, among them keeping terrorism at bay, burnishing America's image as a beacon of freedom, and preserving its superpower role as new rising nations seek to share it. The choice should be carefully made.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State for public affairs and department spokesman in the Reagan administration.

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