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Steinberg May Get Deputy Sec’y of State; This Means What for Dick Holbrooke Exactly?

Sam Stein at Huffington Post reports that a high-juiced Dem official says Jim Steinberg — he of the quality bartending skills — may become Hillary Rodham Clinton’s deputy secretary at the State Dept. As Sam notes, that appears to free up Gen. Jim Jones for national security adviser, the other position Steinberg was in the running for. But for what it’s worth, the bigger question in my eyes is what it means for Clinton’s ability to appoint her own staff.

It should be said that lots of presidents appoint their deputy secretaries as well as cabinet secretaries. If President-elect Barack Obama is doing so here, he’s not venturing outside the norm. And it’s also true that Steinberg became the foreign policy equivalent of a made man under Bill Clinton, where he served as deputy to national security adviser Sandy Berger. But it’s interesting to wonder whether Clinton would rather have put, say, a true loyalist like Richard Holbrooke as her second-in-command. And whether she thinks Obama is planting one of his people at Foggy Bottom to keep tabs on her — much as Dick Cheney did when he made John Bolton undersecretary of state to watch over the wily Colin Powell.

For that matter, where does Holbrooke in particular land? As perhaps the noir-est of progressive foreign-policy betes noire, a man of Holbrooke’s stature can’t easily take a position lower than deputy secretary. As U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration, he was practically a cabinet secretary; and before that he was an assistant secretary of state, so he can’t go back to that. (Or, at least, “can’t” according to the odd social rules of the Washington foreign-policy establishment. Logically there’s no reason why he can’t.) Holbrooke is distrusted by the left for a variety of reasons — he’s pretty much the definition of an establishment Democrat, although he has a record of accomplishment few can match — but he’s a first-class troubleshooter. If you wanted to, say, negotiate a broad accord with Iran or broker a cross-sectarian political settlement in Iraq, he’s top of the list of the guys you send.

And for similar reason, he’s also the guy you want watching your back in a cabinet post. The man’s nickname is The Bulldozer. You want a guy like that chewing up your rivals in deputies’ meetings — er, I mean, forcefully asserting the interests of your department as you productively debate with your counterparts across the government. Wendy Sherman and Jamie Rubin and Lee Feinstein are all talented people and loyal Clintonites, but none of them ever got dictators to lift sieges on cities.

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