Speaking to a group of Palestinians and left-wing Israelis in Israel recently, a high-ranking State Department official took the time to disparage the “conservative” and “Christian” supporters of President Bush, his ultimate superior. The incident is revealing not just in showing the contempt members of the Foreign Service have for Bush, but how urgent the need is for the White House to push for reform at Foggy Bottom.
At a May 4 meeting attended by several Labor Party officials, activists from left-wing Peace Now, and several officials from the Palestinian Authority, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns candidly discussed the U.S. political dynamic with respect to the “roadmap” for peace in the Middle East. The U.S. diplomat pointed the finger at supporters of President Bush, indicating that “conservative and Christian viewpoints” were the main obstacles to peace.
One of the participants remarked to Burns that supporters of Bush “are lobbying to torpedo the ‘roadmap’ and suggested that the Americans should help us [the Peace coalition] to express our views to the American public.” Burns’ response? “The common sense of all peoples will override the conservative and Christian viewpoints once they see the roadmap’s potential.” Burns seized the opportunity to take a potshot at the “viewpoints” of the President’s strongest supporters, claiming that they will be “overridden” by “common sense.” Hard to misread it.
Which might explain why the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem’s original defense was not that Burns didn’t make the comment, but rather that the meeting was supposed to be held in secret. That’s likely true—it was closed to the media, but Peace Now activists were so excited that a senior U.S. official agreed with them that they publicly distributed the minutes of the gathering—but it doesn’t change what Burns actually said.
Many inside the administration are outraged. Sensing that it needs to defuse the matter, State’s official response when asked for comment last week was: “It is simply untrue that Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns made disparaging statements about any groups at his meeting with the Israeli-Palestinian peace coalition last week.” But a State Department spokesman pointedly refused to dispute the accuracy of the minutes of the meeting provided by Peace Now, meaning State’s beef is with the interpretation of the comments. State even echoed Burns’ comments when, later in the same prepared statement read over the phone, the spokesman noted that “common sense” would be the key to peace in the Middle East.
Foggy Bottom is filled with a festering contempt for President Bush, so it should come as little surprise that one of its top officials would—on foreign soil—take a swipe at Bush’s political base. State Department officials are willing to criticize the President in the domestic press as well, albeit anonymously. One “young diplomat,” as the Los Angeles Times described the official, whined to the paper recently, “I, like many others, am carrying a great deal of anger and at times even shame over the way we as a nation are conducting ourselves.” That same article quoted a “mid-level State Department official” as blaming Bush personally for a “massive failure of diplomacy.”
For a variety of reasons, the White House has paid little mind so far to personnel decisions at State. There are but a handful of true political appointments in important positions at Foggy Bottom, as Colin Powell has made good on his original promise to promote and enhance the role of careerists. This must change. Now. Reform cannot be engineered by the same people who have populated State for decades.
To be sure, change will be, at best, plodding and partial. In the meantime, State has other work on its plate, namely the latest rash of murderous bombings in Israel. With Palestinian terrorists murdering innocent Israelis, not even “common sense” will bring peace to the region. But in a hopeful sign, the State Department for the first time used the term “homicide bomber” to describe this weekend’s attack—more than a year after the White House first embraced the word choice. It may only be a word, but with the State Department, you take what little change you can get.