Shooting the messenger

Posted: Apr 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Official Washington is notorious for its tendency to respond to unwelcome performance assessments by "shooting the messenger."  The reaction to Newt Gingrich's recent, scathing critique of the State Department's conduct of diplomacy in recent months, however, seems closer to the gruesome punishment of "drawing and quartering" -- in which the victim's arms and legs were chained to, and then pulled apart by, four horses.

 After the former House Speaker charged last week that the State Department has been responsible for "six months of diplomatic failure" and is engaging in "a deliberate and systematic effort to undermine the President's policies," the most decorous of public repudiations came from the White House and departmental press spokesmen, who insisted that the folks in Foggy Bottom are faithfully following the President's direction. 

 Two of Mr. Gingrich's former colleagues, former Representatives Jack Kemp and Vin Webber, also roled in, with Mr. Kemp charging that "Although he aimed at the State Department and Powell's trip to Syria, [Gingrich] did enormous collateral damage to President George W. Bush both diplomatically and politically. Ugh!" Presidential political advisor Karl Rove is said to have privately chewed Newt out and the Speaker has, regrettably, declined further public comment ever since.

 The most outrageous responses, though, have come from officials appointed by President Bush to top positions in the Department of State.  Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage declared that the erstwhile Speaker of the House of Representatives was "off his meds and out of therapy."  Not to be outdone, Amb. Elizabeth Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs told a Portuguese newspaper that what Gingrich said is "garbage....What Gingrich says does not interest me. He is an idiot and you can publish that."

 Clearly, Mr. Gingrich has struck a nerve.  The vitriol being heaped on him suggests more is in play than mere concern his critique reflects badly on Secretary of State Colin Powell and even President Bush -- not just career diplomats like Ms. Jones and her colleagues in the notoriously Arabist Near East and South Asian Affairs bureau. 

 The truly offensive ad hominem attacks being mounted on the record by Bush appointees in the State Department calls to mind the combat aviators' expression that "If you are not taking anti-aircraft fire, you are not over the target."

 In fact, Newt Gingrich is right on target.  It is the worst kept secret in this town -- or, for that matter, around the world -- that Colin Powell's State Department profoundly disagrees with President Bush and the rest of his national security team on most important policy matters.  For many, both in foreign capitals, among the media elite and in Bush-hostile political circles, this is widely regarded as a very good thing. 

 The depth of this anti-Bush sentiment was captured in a letter to the editor published in Monday's Washington Post: "Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is one of the few voices of reason in this administration, one of the nation's most respected civil servants, a man of impeccable morals and judgment, someone who brings legitimacy to the White House, who has saved that same White House from political disaster on numerous occasions and without whom this administration would be in even more trouble diplomatically than it already is.  Thank God the State Department does not agree with the White House and its controversial foreign policy....Thank God for the checks and balances built into our democratic system."

 The idea that a President's policies would be stymied not by opponents in the legislative branch or by due process in an independent judiciary but by career bureaucrats nominally working for him in the executive branch was surely not what the Framers had in mind.  Yet this notion animates many in the Foreign Service whose almost caste-like view of their profession encourages their contempt for political masters with whom they disagree and, not infrequently, their rank insubordination.

 An example where such behavior can have potentially serious repercussions was reported last Friday by the Reuters news service:  On March 31st, two unnamed State Department officials were told by North Korean counterparts in a meeting at the UN that Pyongyang had begun to reprocess spent fuel rods, a step that would provide materials for a number of nuclear weapons.  Reuters' revelation was news to others involved in highly contentious Bush Administration decision-making about U.S. policy toward the North.  According to Sunday's Washington Post, "Some elements of the State Department purposely did not report the claim to senior officials in the Defense Department and the National Security Council in order to avoid rupturing the Beijing talks before they began."

 Now, the folks in Foggy Bottom know that President Bush deeply, and properly, distrusts the North Korean regime.  He has, as a result, been leery of State Department-promoted efforts to engage in yet-another fraudulent "peace process" that would legitimate the despotic Kim Jong-Il and likely allow him to become still more dangerous. 

 As with other misconduct noted by Speaker Gingrich, Mr. Bush may be embarrassed to discover that what is nominally his Department of State has been playing fast and loose with the facts so as to embroil him in precisely the sort of diplomacy that has not worked in the past vis-à-vis the North Koreans -- and that Newt has correctly pointed out is being no better managed by State on the East River or in the Middle East.  The President and those truly loyal to him must recognize, however, that the political costs of recognizing the validity of the messenger's message today are sure to be far less than those that will come of ignoring it.