'Nuking' the State Department

Posted: Oct 12, 2003 12:00 AM

 State Department spokesman Richard Boucher threw a tantrum Thursday.  The cause of his ire?  Not foreign dictators or nuclear-armed tyrants.  Boucher’s wrath was targeted at Pat Robertson, whose recent remarks the State Department has blasted as "despicable."  The Washington Times further reports that State’s protest—lodged with Robertson directly—has been “made at the highest level.”

  What had the normally staid diplomatic corps worked up into a lather? Robertson's flippant "suggestion" during an interview with me last week on his 700 Club TV show that "If I could just get a nuclear device inside (the State Department)... We've got to blow that thing up."  Taken out of context-or simply read in transcript form-the comment could be seen as ill-advised or even worse.

  But seen in context, Robertson's remark hardly should have caused a fuss. It was clear to all watching that Robertson was not advocating the mass murder of thousands of innocents.

  In fairness to the diplomatic corps, any bombing metaphor, such as Robertson's, is probably not in the best taste considering that embassies have repeatedly been targeted by terrorists and many fine Foreign Service officers have given their lives in defense of our freedom.  That said, Boucher’s temper owed less to Robertson's possibly poor taste and more to State’s inability to handle any criticism.

  When Newt Gingrich unleashed his now infamous criticism of State this April, Foggy Bottom responded not with substance, but with smear. State's number-two official, Richard Armitage, snarled, "It's clear that Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy."

  This columnist speaks from personal experience.  Last year, I wrote a series of columns about a program run by the State Department in Saudi Arabia called Visa Express, whereby all residents in the country that sent us 15 of 19 9/11 terrorists were still applying for visas at private Saudi travel agents-even ten months after 3,000 Americans died in a single day. State's initial reaction was not to close the gaping loophole, but to castigate me personally.  When that didn't work, they tried to intimidate me.

  Following a contentious exchange with Boucher at a daily press briefing last July, four armed guards at State detained me for thirty minutes.  I survived, but the experience showed the lengths to which State will lash out when challenged.

  The real tragedy, though, is not that State explodes with rage whenever it is criticized-it's that State can't muster anywhere near as much emotion when it actually should.

  Responding to Robertson, Boucher moaned, "I lack sufficient capabilities to express my disdain."  But when asked last July whether or not the United States had a message for thousands of Iranian protestors who want the freedom that many Americans regularly take for granted, Boucher flatly replied, "No."

  Refugees attempting to flee Kim Jong-Il's "paradise" in North Korea must wish that State merely ignores them.  Efforts by Congress or various parts of the administration to make it easier for North Koreans to escape and seek refuge in the United States have been beaten back by the State Department. Refugees pouring out of North Korea could lead to the implosion of a nuclear tyranny-and supporting Iranian demonstrators could do the same there-but that's precisely why State plays obstructionist: it doesn't want "instability."

  State's desire for "stability" is so great that in cases of American children kidnapped to foreign lands, Foggy Bottom does precious little, if anything.  Not only does State not fight for the safe return of abducted American children, but it generally does not even ask the foreign government to send the kids back to the United States.  It's not that State doesn't care about the kids; the children just aren't important enough for State to "risk the relationship" over them.

  Looking at the State Department's tragically flawed track record, it is almost hard not to think as Robertson did.  Choosing more tasteful-and appropriate-words, the real solution might be to, in the words of one Foggy Bottom official, "Shatter the place into a thousand pieces."

  Any institution that props up the likes of the Iranian mullahs and Kim Jong-Il, while refusing to help kidnapped American kids, needs nothing less than a complete overhaul.  One benefit would be a culture where State gets worked up when it actually should.