The great risk in having a chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee move over to be Secretary of State is that he will think the two jobs are very much alike. That is, in the new job as in the old one you travel a lot, you give press conferences, you pontificate, and you strategize.
But the job at State is something different: it is a management job as well. There is a Cabinet department to run, with thousands of employees. And managing that department requires that you select the best people you can find as your subordinates. Secretary Kerry is traveling too much and failing to appoint people to fill vacancies.
As of today, the post of Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East is vacant despite Mr. Kerry’s new emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the attention required by the crisis in Syria.
Assistant Secretary of State for Europe is vacant.
Assistant Secretary of State for Africa is vacant.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights is vacant.
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia is vacant.
Assistant Secretary of State for Politico/Military Affairs will be vacant in a matter of days.
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights is vacant.
Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security is vacant.
Deputy Secretary of State for Management is vacant.
And they are not vacant because the Senate is holding up nominees; they are vacant and there are no nominees.
Of course there are people acting in these posts, but they cannot provide the leadership required. Now I suppose there are people who think this is no big deal, or even think it’s just fine. Foreign Service Officers in all those bureaus now have the luxury of working without a presidential appointee at the top who can ensure fidelity to the President’s views. People at the NSC or at the US Mission to the UN have greater independence from the Department of State. But this cannot be good for Secretary Kerry and in the long run–indeed, I would argue even in the short run–it suggests a management failure at the top that will soon affect morale throughout the building.
Perhaps Secretary Kerry has names for each and every one of these posts and cannot get them approved at the White House. That would be a different problem. My impression is that there are names for a couple, and none yet for many others. Selecting, nominating, and confirming his own people should be a top priority for Secretary Kerry–more important than some of the trips he is taking. The task of managing the department cannot be left to anyone else and is not a minor aspect of his role. It’s time to adjust priorities and get a nominee announced for every one of these policy-level vacancies.