Condi?s tough road ahead

Posted: Feb 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Condi Rice is about to learn just how hard her new job will be.  She already received a taste of partisan sniping with Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Mark Dayton (D-MN) calling her a liar during her confirmation hearings.  And she?s undoubtedly getting an earful from Europeans this week whining about American ?unilateralism.?

But the most determined enemy the new Secretary of State will face is not across the pond or even across the aisle.  No, her greatest threat comes from within the halls of Foggy Bottom, in the form of the career Foreign Service.

And she?s already handed them their first victory.

Although Colin Powell was literally given a standing ovation when he arrived four years ago, President Bush has been reviled from the moment he uttered the phrase ?axis of evil.?  So while the Foreign Service loved Bush?s Secretary of State, they hated his boss.  Everyone knows this, too, thanks to myriad quotes from anonymous State Department officials in the New York Times and elsewhere during the campaign.

State Department careerists opposed the war in Iraq, but their contempt for Bush is more deeply rooted in what they deem his Pollyanna-ish worldview.  They believe Bush's promotion of freedom is both naive and dangerous.  They fear it will make America less popular at cocktail parties.  They think it will threaten ?stability??a term as morally neutral as they come?in the Arab world and other tyrannies.

They see it as their job to stop Bush.  During the last four years, they tried often.

Sometimes the undermining comes in the form of withholding valuable information.  Two State Department officials learned in March 2003 that North Korea was reprocessing plutonium.  The timing could not have been worse, however, because it was on the eve of talks State desperately wanted.  If the Pentagon or the White House found out, the talks would be canceled.  So State stayed silent.  The White House and Pentagon were blindsided with the news at the talks.

Sometimes, though, State battles Bush more directly.  On February 26, 2003, the State Department released a report?which was leaked to the LA Times?called ?Democracy Domino Theory: Not Credible.?  On the same day, Bush laid out his vision for, well, a democracy domino theory in the Arab world.

Even after the successful election in Iraq, most State Department officials are secretly preparing to say, ?I told you so.?

Conventional wisdom has it that Condi was sent over to State to put a sock in it.  No matter how much she wants reform, though, achieving it will be near-impossible.

Almost all hiring, firing, transferring, and promoting are handled not by the Secretary of State, but by the Foreign Service itself.  Which means that career-minded Foreign Service Officers, when faced with a choice between loyalties, will not really face much of a choice.

Since roughly 99% of substantive positions at State are filled by career FSOs, most of the building is to the Secretary of State?s powers of persuasion.

Condi?s first big screw-up was to not undo Powell?s biggest one.  Powell elevated FSOs to fill the relative handful of top-level positions usually filled by outside political appointees, making Foggy Bottom a vertically-integrated echo chamber.

If Condi wanted to make a statement that change is coming, she could have brought in fresh blood to reinvigorate the top ranks.  She hasn?t.

Perhpas the surest sign Condi won?t reform State is the retention of a bureaucrat most folks have never heard of.  Maura Harty was promoted to consular chief in 2002 to tighten visa policy, a glaring weakness considering that at least 15 of the 9/11 terrorists were here on visas for which they did not qualify under the law.

But on her most important task?preventing terrorists from again exploiting ridiculously lax visa polcies?Harty has failed.  Consular training has not been beefed up, and her subordinates at Consular Affairs still believe the customer they serve is foreign visa applicants.  Worst of all, the country that sent us 15 of 19 terrorists still receives the red carpet treatment.  Nearly 90% of all Saudi nationals applying for visas receive them?a far higher figure than almost anywhere else in the Arab world.

If any section of State needs a thorough shake-up, it?s Consular Affairs.  But last week, Harty was given word she could stick around.  Notes one Consular Affairs official, ?We were all surprised, including Maura, that Condi asked her to stay.? 

Anyone who expected Condi to reform State should be just as surprised.