Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, were alarmed last week that John Negroponte was leaving as Director of National Intelligence (DNI) after less than two years to become deputy secretary of state. By way of explanation, he informed one Republican senator that he did not want to make the switch but that the White House prevailed on him.

Just what career diplomat Negroponte was doing as the new intelligence czar in the first place is puzzling. But to pull him out just as his on-the-job training as DNI had been completed reflects a panicky desire to fill the deputy secretary's post that had been unfilled for an unprecedented six months. Five other key State Department positions are either vacant or soon to be vacant.

Republicans in Congress, who do not want to be quoted, tell me the State Department under Secretary Condoleezza Rice is a mess. That comes at a time when the U.S. global position is precarious. While attention focuses on Iraq, American diplomacy is being tested worldwide -- in Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Korea and Sudan. The judgment by thoughtful Republicans is that Rice has failed to manage that endeavor.

Rice's previous government duties had been as an analyst and staffer rather than as manager. That made it important for her to name a strong deputy secretary to run the building. John Bolton, an under secretary in the first term and an experienced bureaucratic manager, volunteered. Rice instead picked him as ambassador to the United Nations. The conservative Bolton ran afoul of a liberal Senate vendetta, blocking his confirmation for any post.

The deputy's post went to Robert Zoellick, one of the most talented national security administrators of the past generation who during the Bush first term was U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). He wanted to become World Bank president, but that job was filled by the embattled Paul Wolfowitz, leaving the Defense Department as deputy secretary. Zoellick took a bullet for the team, dropping down a step below No. 2 at State.

Foreign Service Officers saw in Zoellick a dominant deputy in the mold of Richard Armitage, who effectively managed the department during Bush's first term. But Rice and Zoellick did not constitute a marriage made in heaven. Nicholas Burns, No. 3 at State as under secretary for political affairs, dominated the building. Burns surely would have been in the same post if John Kerry were elected in 2004 and seemingly would have been more at home in a Democratic administration.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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