State Department scapegoats

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By Richard Holbrooke
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Newt Gingrich certainly has a way with words -- so much so, in fact, that even when he makes some thoughtful proposals -- in this case, for State Department reform -- his overheated attack rhetoric still overshadows his positive ideas.

Such is very much the case with his article in the new issue of Foreign Policy titled "Rogue State Department." With such a stunning mishmash of wild charges and reasonable recommendations, it is hard to know where to begin. Still, rather than simply attacking the messenger, it is worth discussing the message, separating what's wrong and sometimes even nonsensical from his suggestions, many of which could be worthy of bipartisan support.

Gingrich's thesis can be summarized by quoting from the article's subhead: "Anti-American sentiment is rising unabated around the globe because the U.S. State Department has abdicated values and principles in favor of accommodation and passivity" (emphasis added). Gingrich takes an astonishing swing at the State Department, writing: "We can no longer accept a culture that props up dictators, coddles the corrupt, and ignores secret police forces."

Is this the same man who, as speaker, led the House in a 3 to 1 vote against President Clinton's Bosnia policy, the very policy that ended that four-year war and started a process that led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic? Is the "culture" he refers to the same one whose current leader, Colin Powell, eloquently focused on human rights in Burma during his recent trip to Southeast Asia?

If one accepts Gingrich's central argument, his real target should be the White House, even the president, for being unable to make State and Defense work from a single script, especially in public. There, the disarray (which is worse than at any time in at least the past 20 years) seriously undermines America's political and diplomatic (but not military) effectiveness overseas.

But Gingrich thinks the problem lies at State, which is not carrying out the president's policies. Again, one must ask: Who is Gingrich talking about? Career Foreign Service officers, who are trained (like the military) to serve loyally every president? The political appointees who change with every administration, are individually approved by the White House and fill most of the senior policymaking positions?

Is it those political appointees (one of whom, incidentally, is Vice President Cheney's daughter) who are acting against the policies of their own president? That seems unlikely. Or are Foreign Service officers deliberately not carrying out instructions from the secretary of state and the White House? I can assure him that is simply not true. The Foreign Service has its faults, but it is not insubordinate. It's not surprising that Secretary Powell, with an unquestioned record of loyalty to several commanders in chief, takes offense: In Gingrich's thesis, Powell is either disloyal or incompetent.

Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has expressed frustration with the State Department, while simultaneously relying heavily on talented Foreign Service officers, from Charles E. Bohlen to Philip C. Habib to Thomas Pickering. And while Gingrich refuses to offer any praise to the Foreign Service, a higher percentage of career Foreign Service officers have died in the service of their country since the end of the Vietnam War than of military personnel.

I speak here with some passion: I have lost Foreign Service friends around the world in the past 40 years, people who knew the risks they were taking but faced them without complaint -- officers like my own deputy, Bob Frasure, killed with two other members of our negotiating team as we tried to reach Sarajevo on a peacekeeping mission; Ambassador Arnold Raphel, killed in Pakistan; Ambassador Spike Dubs, murdered in Afghanistan; and Doug Ramsey, imprisoned by the Viet Cong for seven years.

Where Gingrich sees State Department insubordination I see a dedicated group of men and women serving their nation.

On the other hand, Gingrich is right in calling for further reform. Most of his recommendations are neither revolutionary nor wrongheaded; in fact, many are similar to those that have come from internal State Department task forces over the years. Gingrich's key recommendation is to make State "a more effective communicator of U.S. values around the world, place it more directly under the control of the president, and enable it to promote freedom and combat tyranny." The great majority of Foreign Service officers would like nothing better than to be able to do just that -- but they need better training, a better personnel system and far more resources.

When Gingrich calls for a 40 percent funding increase for the Foreign Service, he is on firm ground. But instead of blaming State, he should join forces with Powell to demand of the White House and Congress more funds for the nonmilitary portions our national security budget. Bringing Gingrich into this never-ending struggle would be valuable, although as speaker (and before), he regularly supported the deep cuts Congress made in the State Department's budget.

In 1972, as a young Foreign Service officer, I wrote an article titled "The Machine That Fails." It dealt with many of these same problems and appeared in the inaugural issue of Foreign Policy. So I would say to Newt: Welcome to the right side of this long-running battle. But if you want to make a serious contribution, be prepared to take on some of your friends in the White House and Congress to help get the funding and reforms you advocate, instead of inventing enemies in the State Department.

The writer, who joined the Foreign Service in 1962, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1999 to 2001.

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