A parade and an official Armed Forces farewell will be Defense Secretary Robert Gates's sendoff on Thursday as the widely respected cabinet member retires after his four-and-a-half-year, two-administration tenure. He'll leave to his successor, CIA Director Leon Panetta, a panoply of problems such as wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya and an increasingly precarious defense budget. But for more than anyone, Gates's departure presents Secretary of State Hillary Clinton an opportunity to reassert her department's primacy in foreign affairs.
For years, and especially after the military surge brought on by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department has generally played second fiddle to the Pentagon on foreign policy. The budgets of each tell that story best—in the continuing resolution for fiscal year 2011, for example, the base budget for Defense was about 10 times greater than the State Department's. However, with Gates out the picture, Clinton will be the last high-profile international figure left standing in the cabinet, and now could be her window to assert more of her department's influence over the nation's security. "As Gates phases out this week and Panetta phases in, there's going to be an opportunity for Secretary Clinton to really start making her voice even more heard in national security, and not just diplomacy and not just foreign assistance," says Stephanie Sanok, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
How wide Clinton's window is and how far any added influence will take her, however, depend on some unknowns. Panetta, himself, is one. Another, and perhaps more important, issue is whether the American public and members of Congress would even be willing to spend more—or at very least, not spend less—on the State Department. [Poll: Hillary Clinton Most Influential Woman]
To start, Clinton's standing in the cabinet hinges partly on her relationship with Panetta, which goes back as far as her husband's administration, when Panetta was pulled from Congress to work as Bill Clinton's budget man and later chief of staff. Panetta, a veteran but low-key Washington hand, has remained mostly out of the public scene, even while making a name for himself as the CIA director in charge when America killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Contrast that with a current cabinet member who made a nationwide, headline run for the presidency just a few years ago.
Mark Helmke, spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says it wouldn't be surprising to see Panetta defer to Clinton as the cabinet's international frontman. "Panetta's really never been a very out-front kind of guy as much as Hillary has been, although he was a congressman," Helmke says. "My guess, knowing Panetta, is that he would naturally let her take the lead on this stuff, as he manages other things."
But, where Gates had been willing to rally along with Clinton for more foreign assistance under State as part of national security, Panetta hasn't made his intentions clear, says Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, a conservative-leaning think-tank in Washington. As a result, Clinton may have to become more outspoken in order to bring attention to her department's priorities abroad, particularly amid the budget-cutting atmosphere in Washington. "It's not clear that Panetta has the same commitment to boosting the nonmilitary tools...especially if he's going to make an effort, which he might, to cut back a lot on military spending," says Weitz. "He may not want to further antagonize his military constituency by pushing for more funding going to State." [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]
As secretary of state, Clinton has already been rather bold in expressing her views on national security. Most recently, she drew ire from members of Congress after questioning their commitment to the NATO mission in Libya. "Whose side are you on?" she asked at a recent press conference in Jamaica. "Are you on Qadhafi's side or are you on the side of the aspirations of the Libyan people and the international coalition that has been created to support them?"
And testifying before a Senate panel last week, the day after Obama's East Room address on his Afghanistan strategy, Clinton spoke about the progress and remaining challenges for Americans, civilians and diplomats especially, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While doing so, she underscored the importance of the civilians and diplomats in ensuring America's national security interests in these countries. "I know it may be tempting to peel off the civilian elements of our strategy that make fewer headlines. But as our commanders on the ground will tell you, that would be a serious mistake," she said.
So apart from Clinton's ability to communicate her foreign policy agenda publicly, it will ultimately be the readiness of Congress to support foreign service and assistance abroad that will dictate the outcome. "As they're talking about cutting the Defense Department, nobody's talking about growing the foreign affairs budget," Sanok says. "She's putting herself out there trying to have a greater voice on national security, but the money's really not going to follow it."
Clinton, of course, has said this will be her only term as secretary of state, so how well she reasserts her department's role in the next couple of years could determine her foreign policy legacy.
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Correction 06/30/11: A previous version of this article misspelled the name Richard Weitz.