December 23, 2008 — December 23, 2008-- When Hillary Clinton arrives at Foggy Bottom, she will inherit a State Department that has been slowly dismantled, disenfranchised, and demoralized for two decades. Recent budget increases and talk of "transformational diplomacy" cannot hide the reality that the department is a shadow of the powerful organization that helped bring down the Soviet Union. In choosing to accept a Cabinet post, Clinton has clearly indicated that she believes the path to her political legacy lies in the halls of Foggy Bottom. Ironically, in order to establish this legacy, Clinton will have to return to Capitol Hill.
The problems Clinton will encounter at the Department of State are not new. Since the end of the Cold War, our civilian agencies have slowly been eroded by inadequate resources and a sclerotic bureaucracy. Although President-elect Obama has promised to revitalize the non-military instruments of statecraft, the White House alone cannot bring the change we need. The president may be the foreign policy "decider," but ultimately, Congress must be the "designer."
All of our most significant national security reforms -- from the National Security Act of 1947 to the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 -- have depended on leadership from Congress. The path to civilian capacity reform will be no different. Without a new or modernized National Security Act and Foreign Assistance Act, and without realignments in budgetary priorities, it will be impossible to revitalize the civilian tools of statecraft. Hillary Clinton can be the critical link to make this policy priority a legislative reality.
In order to revitalize the State Department, Clinton and Congress must address three priorities. First, we need a civilian workforce that is flexible and expeditionary. Civilian expertise is desperately needed to tackle challenges ranging from engineering support to medical relief to humanitarian assistance in environments that run from relatively peaceful to extremely violent. Second, the administration must provide budgetary sufficiency and coherence. The State Department clearly needs an infusion of resources. To make this possible, the administration will have to establish clear funding priorities across the spectrum of national security agencies and provide greater flexibility in allocating resources between civilian and military activities. Finally, we must clearly define and restore the value of public diplomacy and development. Whether or not organizations like USAID and USIA exist independently or within the State Department, their voices need to be adequately represented.
Achieving these goals will be difficult, but for several reasons, Clinton is better poised to succeed where others failed. First, she can be the president's congressional "closer" -- a strong voice to carry his message through the legislative maze. Clinton not only brings "star power" to her position, but she also brings a working knowledge about how to grease the congressional skids. As a senator, she earned a reputation as a pragmatist who listened carefully and was not afraid to work across the aisle. This reputation will serve her well for the task at hand.
Second, the Obama administration will have to sell the American public on the necessity of increasing diplomacy and foreign assistance spending during a recession. In this arena, Hillary Clinton can be the President's communicator-in-chief not only to foreign governments, but to the American people. Those 18 million cracks in the presidential glass ceiling amount to political capital that Clinton brings to the State Department. President Obama could have no better envoy to help convince the American public about the necessity of strong civilian capacity overseas.
Finally, even with a Democratic majority, major reform will require bipartisan support. Here Clinton will be able to provide especially valuable assistance. The administration could reach out to several influential Republican members of Congress to support reform legislation, but there would be no stronger evidence of bipartisanship than the support of John McCain. Sen. McCain has long championed the necessity of bipartisanship, and past statements indicate his support for civilian reforms. Support for this initiative would go a long way towards restoring his maverick sheen and demonstrating that the "John McCain of 2000" is back. Clinton and McCain have a long-standing friendship, and she could be a vital emissary to secure his support.
Ultimately, it will be up to Barack Obama and his administration to articulate a specific vision for rebuilding our civilian capacity. The task is long overdue and urgently needed. America must begin to rebalance our power in the world and rebuild the civilian tools of our national security. This will certainly not be an easy task -- but the key components of success are clear. It's all about the Hill(ary).
Vikram Singh is a Fellow and Lindsey Ford is a consultant at the Center for a New American Security.