Why De-emotionalizing the Secretary of State Pick is Critical for Trump

By Mike Furlong: 

President-elect Donald Trump (POTUS-elect) is about to select his nominee for the Secretary of State (SecState) position for the incoming Trump Administration. By various media accounts, POTUS-elect has about 10 candidates that he is seriously reviewing.

POTUS-elect obviously understands the great importance of the SecState position; therefore, he is conducting a deliberate, patient, and thoughtful process. Sean Spicer, a senior Trump Transition Team spokesperson, conveyed recently on Fox News, that POTUS-elect will make a final decision on his nominee during the week of 12 to 16 December, 2016.

POTUS-elect’s final decision on the SecState position will not please everyone. Strong concerns have been voiced by the “chattering class” against each of POTUS’ top-5 candidates. The decision appears simple to those advocating “their favorite candidate” over another candidate that they loathe, for one reason or another.

POTUS-elect’s decision-making is astronomically more complex. POTUS at the very top of the pyramid, and the sole person who must live with his choice, is bombarded with all the agendas, interests, and simple opinions. He sees the problem from a level higher and from all directions. POTUS must weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. In the end, POTUS must select a SecState that delivers for all the American people. President Reagan did this when he picked George H.W. Bush as his Vice-President after a vicious campaign against each other.

The State Department website’s current job description for the SecState is so generalized that it is not useful for identifying specific implementation tasks for a prospective candidate. The website lists 14 broad roles and tasks. See four such tasks below:

  • Serves as the President’s principal adviser on U.S. foreign policy;
  • Conducts negotiations relating to U.S. foreign affairs; …
  • Informs the Congress and American citizens on the conduct of U.S. foreign relations;
  • Promotes beneficial economic intercourse between the United States and other countries;

As you can see, there is much more homework to do in accurately defining the requirements of the SecState job. I am suggesting that the job description requires specific tailoring that better describes what POTUS expects from his SecState. For example, tailored tasks might include tasks drafted like the following:

  • “Understands fully POTUS’ position on Radical Islamic Terrorism and can build an International Coalition of nations to seriously confront this global scourge.”
  • Understands completely, and pursues aggressively, POTUS’ “America First” and “Free but Fair Trade policies;”

This more granular approach would better define the SecState job description, and concurrently, directly serve the selection process. This approach enables identifying the personal attributes and skill-sets required for a successful SecState candidate.

With emotions running this high and disparate, this approach would help balance the emotions of selection with quantifiable data that is tied to POTUS-elect’s goals, objectives, and SecState’s major tasks. POTUS-elect needs to develop a preliminary, 1st spiral, “Vision Building” process in developing his National Security Strategy. This investment of a couple of days of analytic effort would pay significant dividends in policy development and selecting the right cabinet candidates.

A summary of this two-day, analytic, thought process would include, but is not limited to, the following:

Goals à Objectives; Vision à Strategy; Strategy à Major Tasks; Major Tasks à Capabilities Required; Capabilities Required à Resources Available à Operational Plans à Execution.

The advantages of adding a quantifiable component to the SecState selection will quell some of the snarky rhetoric from his detractors, the media, and his ardent supporters. The major benefit will be a SecState nominee that better fits POTUS’ tailored needs for the job.

For this selection process, this can be a cursory or quick 1st spiral analysis. A more comprehensive and in-depth effort would cover this turf when developing POTUS’ eventual and comprehensive National Security Strategy.

Macro-level considerations for a decision-matrix approach might include, but are not limited to, the following factors:

  • POTUS’ goals would surely include the security and safety of America’s citizenry and her enduring democratic principles/values and institutions. Also, it would surely include prosperity for America’s citizenry and organizational entities.
  • These two overarching goals, would drive America’s vital and major interests. These interests would drive POTUS’ vision for America, and concomitantly, America’s foreign policy and strategy—the SecState’s portfolio.
  • Within this framework, POTUS could derive—impersonally and unemotionally—the role, responsibilities, and major tasks for his SecState to achieve POTUS’ personal vision.
  • These major SecState tasks will require specific capabilities, skill-sets, and resources to accomplish them.
  • To achieve these major tasks, it will require, among other things, engaging various external/international threats, obstacles, international factors and realities, not the least of which are the agenda and self-interests of scores of other competing nation-states.
  • In parallel to these external factors are the considerable American internal factors and realities, for example: budget constraints, partisan politics, popular support, competing USG priorities, etc. You can discern where I am headed with the macro-view framework:

Some might say, this is too complicated a process to have utility. I would disagree. We are not selecting someone to run a lemonade stand. The SecState position, and frankly, all the cabinet positions in the U.S. government, are complex job environments executed on behalf of 325 million Americans. We need to get it right.

This macro-view process can unemotionally frame the role and mission of the State Department and its leader, the SecState. This framing will include two distinct, but related, mission areas. The first, and most important, is the external State Department operations abroad. The second is the day-to-day operations of the state department and its ~ 24,000 workers at home in Foggy Bottom.

Both mission areas must be analyzed in the micro-analysis. This would enable translating the “capabilities required” of the SecState into a tailored job description for POTUS-elect’s SecState. From this, personal attributes and skill-sets of the prospective candidates could be compared with the new, detailed, SecState job description.

Much of this data required, with reasonable diligence, can be obtained from the State Department website. This would be a 60% solution to use as a start-point for the Trump team’s analysis.

For the sake of brevity, I am going to fast-forward to potential attributes and skill-sets that are highly likely to be required to succeed in the job. I base this on several decades of experience working in the USG (United States Government) Interagency and in operations abroad.

I have listed, below, a range of tailored attributes and skill-sets likely to be required of a successful SecState:

  • Has a keen understanding of POTUS’ Vision, Vital and Major Interests;
  • Is loyal and competent in executing POTUS’ Vision;
  • Understands completely and aggressively pursues POTUS’ “America First” and “Free but Fair Trade policies;
  • “Understands fully POTUS’ position on Radical Islamic Terrorism and can build an international coalition of nations to seriously confront this global scourge.”
  • Understands POTUS’ position on immigration and extreme vetting and can implement a process to achieve these aims;
  • Understands POTUS’ position on NATO and other Alliances and is capable of reforming and refining NATO and other appropriate alliances;
  • Has a strong character with stature, gravitas, and temperament to engender respect and constructive dialogue from the heads of state around the world;
  • Has impeccable human relations and communications skills, including an uncanny ability to read sophisticated foreign leaders;
  • Has superb negotiating skills;
  • Is a quick-study and can easily prepare himself/herself for high-level meetings, conferences, and negotiations;
  • Strong leadership skills to lead state department’s 24,000 employees and 201 U.S. ambassadors;
  • Is a consummate “team player” among the Cabinet Secretaries and the U.S. Trade Rep;
  • Understands the impact and consequences of POTUS’ possible commitment of and use of U.S. forces in war; and that impact on rules of engagement for our warfighters;

Other factors impacting POTUS’ SecState selection might include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Internal USG and international S]stakeholders; ?
  • Impact on POTUS-elect’s voter base;
  • GOP Senate and House of Representatives’ relations;
  • Senate confirmation hearings and democratic opposition;
  • POTUS-elects internal team dynamics;

From this macro- and micro-view analysis, one could design a decision-matrix. The matrix would list 10 very important tailored attributes and skill-sets that are critical to selecting a successful SecState candidate. Across the top of this list could be the list of potential candidates. The weighting of the attributes and skill-sets would be included. Then, unemotionally, each candidate would be scored in each of the attributes and skill-sets areas. Each candidate would have a score to compare against the other candidates.

In conclusion, we understand that there are many ways to achieve candidate selection. Yes, there are hard-to-score intangible aspects of grading prospective candidates. The approach above is not perfect, nor is it complete. This approach is a mere tool that could be applied to “de-emotionalize” and balance any other approach contemplated. Like I said earlier, we are selecting a Secretary of State—not someone to operate a lemonade stand!

Michael Furlong is a Senior OpsLens Contributor.  Furlong is a career Army Infantry Officer, Battalion Task Force Commander, Combat Veteran, and retired Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service.


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