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Who will be Obama's top diplomat?

The State Department sits ready to receive President-elect Obama's foreign policy transition team — the first major transition for the agency since the Clinton administration turned the keys over to George W. Bush.
Image: Sen. Chuck Hagel,  Sen. John Kerry, Former Sen. Sam Nunn, Sen. Dick Lugar.
Will one of these men get the top spot at State? Sen. Chuck Hagel, Sen. John Kerry, Former Sen. Sam Nunn, and Sen. Dick Lugar are reportedly all in the running.Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

The carpets are shampooed and the computers are set up.

Office space for about two-dozen State Department guests sits ready to receive President-elect Barack Obama's foreign policy transition team — the first major transition for the agency since the Clinton administration turned the keys over to George W. Bush.

So when the next transition officially takes place on January 20th, 2009, who will be the nation’s top diplomat? And what will the new secretary face?

Both sides of the aisle
The list of priorities to be handed over — along with the reins — will be long.

President Obama's administration will inherit two wars, a defiant Iran, an unstable and volatile Pakistan, an aggressive Russia, and a Middle East peace process unresolved.

In the running to take on this daunting to-do list is Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel. He carries the reputation of a leading foreign policy voice in the Senate, and has already announced plans to retire after his current term. Hagel has already built a relationship with Obama while traveling with him to the Middle East earlier this year.

Hagel broke with his party in July 2007 on a troop withdrawal vote, making him one of only three Republican Senators to then side with Democrats. Even though he, himself, never endorsed a candidate, his wife did publicly speak out for Obama in early October, saying "This isn't anti-McCain. This is pro-Obama. I'm just convinced he's the right person."

Another possible Republican pick is Sen. Dick Lugar. The senior senator from Indiana chaired the Foreign Relations Committee before Sen. Biden, and could transfer that working relationship with the Vice President-elect to the White House. Obama specifically named Lugar during the final Presidential debate as one of the foreign policy influences who has "shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House."

However, a spokesman for Lugar told NBC News that the Senator had "definitely" ruled out the possibility, and looks forward to improving bipartisan cooperation on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Former Presidential candidate John Kerry’s also made the rounds on the speculation circuit before a new President had even been elected. As a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry would bring the same wealth of policy experience and a working relationship with Biden. He was an early Obama-backer and publicly defended the candidate’s foreign policy views during the campaign.

Some even credit Kerry, who chose Obama to deliver the 2004 Democratic Convention keynote, with launching Obama to the national stage. But a President elected on “change” may not see fit to include his party’s 2004 Presidential candidate.

And then there is Sam Nunn, a former U.S. Senator and the current CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Nunn brings a Washington insider's experience on national defense. His work on disarmament in Russia and the former Soviet republics means a unique understanding of a region important to the U.S.

He is also no stranger to applying diplomatic pressure. In 1994 he was part of a three-man team dispatched by President Clinton to force the departure of the Haitian military dictator. His nuclear know-how could prove useful in dealing with Pakistan, Iran and North Korea as well.

Global hot spots
No matter who assumes the agency’s helm, formidable challenges lie ahead.

Like in Iraq, where U.S. diplomats work alongside 152,000 U.S. troops.

Obama has pledged to end the war in Iraq by withdrawing all U.S. combat brigades by April 2010, just 16 months after taking office. The Bush administration could leave office without a formal agreement governing the status of forces on the ground. The task of hammering out that security agreement would then fall to Obama’s secretary of state. Next year’s elections in Iraq mean the U.S., specifically the secretary of state, will also have to build diplomatic bridges with a new set of Iraqi leaders.

In Afghanistan, Obama has advocated sending in additional U.S. troops and providing additional funds for civil programs like agriculture reform. With Taliban and al Qaida violence on the rise, the U.S. may consider following Pakistan's approach and engaging the Taliban in reconciliation talks. The next secretary will be a key player in making the calculation of whether or not to talk to the enemy.

Across the border in Pakistan, where a new government works to get settled, the Bush administration has walked a fine line of maintaining a low diplomatic profile while taking a more aggressive military stance. Pakistan has spoken out strongly against U.S. unilateral strikes across the border, a tactic Obama supports in cases where there is "actionable intelligence" for potential targets. Obama's secretary of state will have to work to build a relationship with Pakistan's new leaders and mend fences with a Pakistani public angered by U.S. policy.

Fences also require mending on U.S.-Russian relations, which plummeted this summer after the Russian invasion of Georgia. Obama has called for an improvement in this "strategic" relationship, vital to diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran and North Korea. The next secretary of state will be swimming into increasingly unfriendly waters establishing a relationship with his or her Russian counterpart.

In Iran, the Bush administration recently changed its tack, adopting a policy of engagement this summer and sending an envoy for talks in July. There are plans to announce the opening of an interests section soon, meaning an increased level of engagement in the years to come.

This falls in line with the approach Obama has promised to adopt, along with increased economic pressure. But the task of further defining this volatile relationship — either by solidifying the ties or going back to isolating Iran — would fall to the next secretary of state.

The Middle East, embroiled in a 60-year unresolved conflict, remains high on the list of diplomatic priorities facing the next secretary. Even in her final days in office, Secretary Rice continues to work with the Israelis and Palestinians towards a peace agreement, but all sides acknowledge changes in the next few months are highly unlikely.

Bush administration officials maintain they are focused on turning over a functioning negotiating process to the next president. Obama has supported continuing that engagement in ongoing peace talks, but again, it will fall to his secretary to help develop any lasting agreement.

Setting up shop
With so much facing the new secretary, a smooth transition is all the more crucial.

The first points of contact for the transition team will be about two-dozen administrative staff from the State Department sitting in 5,300 square feet of space on the agency’s first floor.

Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, is one of three career service foreign officers running this transition. Kennedy is no stranger to the process, having worked on six previous presidential transitions.

His motto, "be organized, be flexible," means that his team was in place and ready to work even before Election Day.

In a pre-Election Day interview, Kennedy told NBC News, "the space is ready now."

A week after the election, the office remains empty, and Kennedy has yet to receive any official notification of the leaders' names. But NBC News has learned that Clinton-era State Department officials Wendy Sherman and Tom Donilon are working with the incoming Obama Transition team.

Kennedy's own transition staff consists of everyone from human resources personnel to technical support staff, and serves to facilitate the incoming team's every immediate need.

Kennedy described it as "one-stop shopping to roll everyone through, from getting them a blackberry or a cell phone, to how to log onto the computer system."

"And all of this of course is done after we make sure that they have a security clearance," he added.

Plus there is the paper work. Even the best-laid plans won’t prevent a months-long transition process, according to Kennedy.

"Literally, everybody's got to fill out paper," said Kennedy. "You could be talking about July, August before all the individuals who turned over are replaced."

Hitting the ground running
All of this preparation, according to Kennedy, will lay the foundation for the next team to hit the ground running as early as they wish. For an agency that regularly deals with sensitive files, accessible only to those with security clearances, any information handoff is as crucial as any other.

"The Department of State will do everything that we can, and I personally will do everything...that I can, to make sure that this is a smooth transition," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the morning after Obama's victory.

Briefing materials for the incoming team are already back from the printers in the form of a policy book, budget book, and personnel book. "It's sort of the past and the present [of State Department policy]," said Kennedy. "We're not directing the future, but we're just saying the future could be such and such."

It’s all about conveying information — and doing so diplomatically.

“They have to be brought up to speed on the issues and the challenges that we face,” Kennedy said, “so there is literally a seamless handoff at 12 noon on the 20th.”