THE BLOG
10/20/2006 05:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who Will be Deputy Secretary of State?

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(Who will get former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's job?)

The real answer to this question is that R. Nicholas Burns should be. If not Burns, then the person Condi should nominate is US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad.

I tried to distance myself from Burns some time ago and gave him some tongue-in-cheek critique on his performance as a way to boost his credentials for the Cheney wing of the White House, but too many people got confused by my silly attempt at reverse psychology.

I had been told that if this blog -- which is read by many in the State Department and White House -- was too friendly to Burns that it would hurt him politically. But too many people thought I really didn't like him and that's no good.

I do like Nick Burns. I think that he is the best diplomat that we have working for the government right now, and he is working in crappy circumstances, trying to make the most out of the fact that the White House for whom it works is better at destroying nations than constructing stable national and regional order.

Condi Rice needs a Deputy Secretary of State -- not only to help manage the sprawling needs of the Department but also to be another high-level persona working out deals with areas of the world that are in crisis. The fact is that Rice is too high profile to be the micro-level problem solver. A Deputy can get into the grit of problems and work them out. Richard Armitage did this frequently, and by many accounts, brilliantly -- when he wasn't occupied gossiping to reporters about Valerie Plame (needed to get this in).

Rice now has two super high level fronts open that she needs to confront -- one is North Korea and the other is Iran. Then of course, there is the nearly boiling over mess in Iraq, the destabilization of Afghanistan, the empowerment of Hezbollah and destabilization of Lebanon, the ulcerous standoff beween Israel and Palestine. This doesn't even get to Darfur, the Congo, Sierra Leone, and many other problems around the world -- including the czarification of Putin's administration in Russia.

She needs a Deputy, fully empowered to get American foreign policy back into a "proactive" position and out of the "reactive" mode America finds itself in now.

So, who are the candidates?

They have been:

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1. R. Nicholas Burns

Burns and Kimmitt were reportedly Condi Rice's top personal choices for the Deputy job. Burns has been stymied by whisper campaigns from the John Bolton camp and the mistrust of the Cheney wing of the foreign policy establishment. Some think that Condi is just waiting until after the election and until "all other possibilities" have been exhausted before making a push to resolve the vacancy and use her political capital to elevate Burns.

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2. Robert Kimmitt

Bob Kimmitt is currently Deputy Secretary of the Treasury and has one of the most impressive resumes of international service among those in government. He is a realist and is (or was) high on Condi's list. He had some interest in moving to State as well as Kimmitt's background helped fill out the capacity and skill set at Treasury when the more domestically focused John Snow was Treasury Secretary. Now that former Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson has the Hamilton perch in government, Kimmitt's skills and interests are redundant and trumped by the boss. He also would be grilled on the Dubai Ports deal complicating confirmation.

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3. Philip Zelikow

Zelikow is very close to Condi Rice and serves as her Counselor. He is brainy and often 'perceived' to be arrogant. I think he's just really smart and intimidates folks. I have worked with him in the past in Atlantic Council study groups, though not closely, He ran the 9/11 Commission and is a real player in the foreign policy arena. While Condi Rice allegedly would be "fine" with Zelikow shifting to the Deputy slot, the rank and file of the State Department have let her know that there could be mass unrest within the bureaucracy because of personality conflict concerns. While I don't have a problem with Zelikow and appreciate his intellect, I don't see him as the kind of international problem solver and deal maker that the Deputy slot needs. But I know others who place great faith in him.

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4. Eric Edelman

Edelman is the dark horse candidate for the job. He's not particularly well known but those who do know him like him and respect his management ability. Edelman is reportedly favored by the Cheney wing of the foreign policy establishment but is also someone Condi Rice likes and can work with. This kind of compromise candidate may be what defines the eventual holder of the position -- but its unclear what Edelman's policy focus or approach to the job might be. Edelman is currently Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and former US Ambassador to Turkey. He also has some Scooter Libby-related baggage that could aggravate confirmation.

I don't know if there have been others on a short list -- but the one I have not seen but who should be on the list is Zalmay Khalilzad, our current Ambassador to Iraq and just prior to that, Afghanistan.

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As one former senior diplomat told me last night about Khalilzad, "he is not known for his management abilities." But that is not why one would want Khalilzad.

We need deal-makers who know how to constructively wrestle with Iran, which Khalilzad did when Ambassador to Afghanistan and when Iran was collaborating with us behind the scenes to arm and train the Afghan army.

Khalilzad knows all of the major clerics and tribal chieftains in Iraq and Afghanistan and is well acquainted with the factional chiefs in Iran. He knows the Syrian leadership and has a better sense of nearly anyone else in the administration what is happening inside Lebanon.

His relationships with the more moderate Sunni led governments in the region are excellent, and he has legitimacy in their eyes as a fair broker of interests, understands the constraints and realities of creating legitimacy in the eyes of publics, is aware that America has a rap of playing to heavy a hand in the region -- and as a Muslim, is trusted to be fair-minded in any Israel-Palestine effort.

Khalilzad also has his own relationship with Bush and often meets with the President alone when he comes back to Washington. This has apparently produced some "testiness" with Condi Rice -- who has had some friction with Khalilzad in the past.

But Rice needs a bigger team of people she largely trusts to give her more edge in the policy development and implementation process -- and Khalilzad has those networks and capabilities.

As an original PNAC member, Khalilzad is also appreciated by some neocons, though he is really much more of a pragmatist in his thinking and writing.

Here is one piece of his titled "Ten Lessons for Nation Building" that was derived from an article, "How to Nation-Build" in the Summer 2005 issue of National Interest.

I think our State Department would be well-served by Nick Burns.

But if that just isn't going to work out, Zalmay Khalilzad adds capacity in many areas -- particularly public diplomacy in the Muslim world -- that call for him to be appointed to this job.

(P.S. I had confirmation today from a high level source in the Department of State that sees the Bolton Battle "as basically finished." So, if Khalilzad has too complicated a relationship with Condi to move into the Deputy Sec State role, then send Khalilzad to the United Nations.)

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note