Back-stabbing at Foggy Bottom

Posted: Jun 23, 2003 12:00 AM

“Many people at State want to embarrass the President,” explains a State Department official—a comment echoed by others at Foggy Bottom alarmed that some of their colleagues are so brazen as to openly plot against the commander-in-chief.  Some of those wishing to politically harm President Bush are now in Iraq, where the President’s vision of a free Iraq is being fought by State officials on a regular basis.

  Of course much of the rhetoric could be nothing more than boastful bravado—particularly since such comments actually help in a building teeming with people who openly despise Bush and want him to lose in 2004—but State’s actions have clearly undermined the President, and it is only a matter of time until it takes a political toll.  In that vein, the White House would be wise to heed the advice of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who is renewing his calls for a “top-to-bottom transformation” of Foggy Bottom.

  Although Mr. Gingrich’s latest critique—an article in Foreign Policy magazine—will no doubt be labeled a “broadside,” it is a relatively modest set of concrete proposals.  Chief among them is increasing language proficiency of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), in part by offering generous bonuses—so that FSOs can better communicate with the locals in the countries where they are stationed.  Two other “radical” suggestions are more comprehensive continuing education programs and one-year sabbaticals after the sixth year and two-year hiatuses after the 14th year. 

  Though he pared back his original emphasis in the American Enterprise Institute speech two months ago on State’s incompetence, the title of Mr. Gingrich’s article, “The Failure of Diplomacy,” implies something about State that probably isn’t accurate.  The natural conclusion one would draw from the headline is that State somehow does not achieve what it sets out to accomplish.  The real problem, though, is that State is incredibly effective at accomplishing its objectives.  Look at the record.

  State wanted Baathists to remain as a significant part of the post-Saddam transitional authority in Iraq, in large part because Foggy Bottom officials believed that those Saddam loyalists were the only ones with the requisite knowledge and skill sets to effectively manage the country.  Until new civilian administrator Paul Bremer issued a sweeping de-Baathification order last month—banishing some 15,000 to 30,000 former high-ranking party members from holding any public office—State was successful in installing Saddam loyalists into any number of key positions.  One of the most vivid examples was State reinstating as president of Baghdad University Saddam Hussein’s personal physician.

  Despite President Bush’s inclusion of Iran in the “axis of evil,” State managed to initiate talks with the reigning mullahs.  This was no small feat.  The approved talking points for the meeting were changed from the friendly tone State wanted to a much harsher one endorsed by the so-called “hawks,” but having the talks at all with a government that might be on the brink of collapse was a victory in and of itself.

  Proving that they are, in fact, exceedingly skillful bureaucrats, State officials managed to conceal for three weeks North Korea’s March 31 admission to them that it was reprocessing plutonium—the first time Pyongyang had conceded that.  Had State told the White House and the Pentagon, the talks with North Korea and China slated to start on April 23 in Beijing likely would have been canceled.  But because of State’s “shielding” of the information, the talks went off as planned.

  Mr. Gingrich’s proposed structural fixes of State could have a substantial impact.  But it’s hard to imagine that organizational reform alone will cure State’s corrosive culture.  If anything, Mr. Gingrich’s modest proposals do not go far enough in reforming Foggy Bottom.  There are many talented and dynamic FSOs, but they are outnumbered by those who adhere to State’s culture, as Mr. Ginrich puts it, “that props up dictators, coddles the corrupt, and ignores secret police forces.”

  If the White House and Congress fail to act on Mr. Gingrich’s recommendations, President Bush’s policy goals could be jeopardized.  If they fail to go even further by bringing in fresh blood and outside leadership, the President’s political goals—namely re-election next year—could be jeopardized as well.