The Mess at State

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Members of the Senate intelligence committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, were alarmed last week that John Negroponte was leaving as director of national intelligence 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 had prevailed on him to do so.

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

Republicans in Congress who do not want to be quoted tell me that the State Department under Condoleezza Rice is a mess. This comes at a time when the U.S. global position is precarious. While attention is focused 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 a manager. That made it important for her to name a strong deputy secretary to run the building. John Bolton, an undersecretary in President Bush's first term and an experienced bureaucratic manager, volunteered. Rice instead picked him to be ambassador to the United Nations. The conservative Bolton ran afoul of a liberal Senate vendetta that blocked 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 Bush's first term was U.S. trade representative. He wanted to become president of the World Bank, but that job was filled by the embattled Paul Wolfowitz, who left the Defense Department as deputy secretary. Zoellick took a bullet for the team, dropping down a step to 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 the first term. But Rice and Zoellick were not a marriage made in heaven. Nicholas Burns, No. 3 at State as undersecretary for political affairs, dominated the building. Burns surely would have been in the same post if John Kerry had been elected in 2004 and seemingly would be more at home in a Democratic administration.

Estranged from Zoellick, Rice relied on Burns and State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow for advice. A former Foreign Service officer and brilliant University of Virginia professor, Zelikow was near the top of the arrogance scale in a building where arrogance is the norm, uniting such disparate figures as Bolton and Burns. Zoellick busied himself by specializing in China and Sudan, unusual for a deputy secretary, but he finally had enough after 18 months and left in July.

That began a furtive, sporadic search for a deputy. Several prospects (including Marine Gen. James Jones, who just retired as NATO's supreme allied commander) said no, perhaps warned off by Zoellick's experience. Negroponte, named national intelligence director despite his lack of intelligence experience, was implored by fellow Foreign Service officers to bring order out of chaos. Retired Adm. Mike McConnell, though he had been out of the intelligence game for 10 years, was tapped to replace Negroponte.

Negroponte will find other empty offices at State. Zelikow, Counterterrorism Coordinator Hank Crumpton and John Hillen, assistant secretary for political-military affairs, have all resigned and have not been replaced. Robert Joseph, undersecretary for arms control, is reported to be going, and Josette Sheeran Shiner, undersecretary for economic affairs, is leaving to head the World Food Program.

With the State Department permanent bureaucracy traditionally hostile to Republican administrations, it is remarkable to see two Foreign Service officers, Negroponte and Burns, in the department's No. 2 and No. 3 slots. Insiders relish their confrontation. When Negroponte was flying high as Ronald Reagan's Communist-fighting ambassador to Honduras, Burns was a rookie staff assistant to the U.S. envoy in Cairo. That may turn out to be a good show, but it is not reassuring for a country facing myriad challenges worldwide.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company