In Defense of State

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It's not quite "Who lost China?" — the mantra of Joe McCarthy's witch-hunt that began a purge of the State Department — but Newt Gingrich's attack on Foggy Bottom certainly matches McCarthy for hysteria. Indeed, if the (dare we say "disgraced"?) former Speaker of the House is to be believed, President Bush's foreign policy is being systematically sabotaged by a determined group of fanatics in the very department charged with carrying it out. The evidence? Quite simply that most of the world opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq; that no UN Security Council resolution could be garnered to authorize it; that Turkey could not be permitted to provide basing rights for a northern front; that the populations of such traditional allies as France, Germany and South Korea have become overwhelmingly hostile to U.S. foreign policy. This, Gingrich concludes, can only be the result of a failure of diplomacy — he repeatedly uses the phrase "communication" — so catastrophic that it could have been contrived only by imbeciles or saboteurs.

I hold no brief for the State Department, although I have often pondered sympathetically their unenviable task of selling a foreign policy that has so consistently alarmed and alienated so many of America's closest allies on so many issues. No such sympathy from Gingrich.

No, according to Gingrich, the State Department has worked systematically to dilute President Bush's Iraq campaign ever since last year's UN address. They began by diluting the impact of Bush's speech by negotiating Resolution 1441, which sent arms inspectors back to Iraq. This is a rather bizarre reading of what was generally hailed as a triumph of administration diplomacy — the resolution passed unanimously, after all. Gingrich and his pals in the ultra-hawkish Defense Policy Board may have wanted to see a resolution back then demanding military action for Iraq's previous non-compliance, but that wouldn't have passed at all. (Even Britain would have been unable to support it.) Resolution 1441 was as good as it was going to get at the UN, not because the State Department had somehow failed in its mission to persuade the rest of the world of the Bush administration's case, but because the case itself was insufficiently persuasive — even after Powell gave it his spirited best shot at the Security Council in January. (Curiously, not one of the intelligence leads as to the whereabouts of potential weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has yet panned out, neither during the UN inspections or since the U.S. has been conducting its own. This, no doubt, is also somehow the fault of some State Department malingerers.)

Gingrich's indictment sometimes verges on the laughable. After the treachery of 1441, he says, "The State Department then accepted Hans Blix as chief inspector — even though he was clearly opposed to war and determined to buy time and find excuses for Saddam. The State Department then accepted Blix's refusal to hire back any of the experienced inspectors thus further drawing out the process."

Reality check: Hans Blix was appointed head of UNMOVIC in 1999. UNMOVIC differed from its predecessor, UNSCOM, in that it hired its own personnel with a budget drawn from the oil-for-food program. UNSCOM had relied on personnel seconded by intelligence services of the UN member states, and the result was that its independence was compromised by officials conducting espionage work on behalf of their own governments. So Blix's appointment and UNMOVIC's staffing policies were a done deal, and were not up for review in the wake of President Bush's address. Curiously, also, President Bush met personally with Blix before his return to Iraq and expressed confidence in him.

The point is that most of the international community remained unconvinced by the case the U.S. was making for war, not because of its presentation but because of its content. And nothing about the war, thus far, has changed their view that the U.S. had not presented credible evidence that Iraq represented an imminent unconventional weapons threat. This could change, of course, if U.S. inspectors manage to unearth evidence of a major active weapons program, but clearly not on the basis of the evidence available in Washington at the time Powell made his last pitch — U.S. inspectors in Iraq have already checked those leads, and come up empty handed.

Gingrich blithely ignores these realities and lays into what he sees as a communications failure by Powell's people: "The State Department communications program failed during these five months to such a degree that 95 percent of the Turkish people opposed the American position. This fit in with a pattern of State Department communications failures as a result of which the South Korean people regarded the United States as more dangerous than North Korea and a vast majority of French and German citizens favored policies that opposed the United States."

The problem was not the packaging, Newt, it was the policies. The only way the State Department could have changed the outcome in Turkey was if it had mastered the art of mass hypnosis.

The majority of Turks opposed the war because they remember the impact the last one had on their country, and shared with most of the Muslim world a deep suspicion of U.S. intentions. Again, this was about policy, not packaging: On the single issue on which Washington is, rightly or wrongly, most often judged in the Muslim world — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Bush administration had for the most part simply folded its arms and let Ariel Sharon get on with it. No amount of soothing "communication" was going to alter the impressions thus formed. When President Bush insisted that "Ariel Sharon is a man of peace," Arab allies took it as a sign that the President was not seriously engaged with the Middle East.

In his eagerness to trash State, Gingrich appears to undo his own argument when he says it was Pentagon diplomacy, rather than State Department efforts, that won the U.S. basing rights in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But it was the same Defense Department diplomacy, in the form of Paul Wolfowitz's intense direct lobbying, that failed to sway the Turks: Turkey is a "guided" democracy in which the military holds considerable sway. And the Turkish military, despite its closeness to Washington, declined at a crucial moment to advise parliament on how it should vote on Iraq — for reasons that have more to do with the Turkish military being dissatisfied by the terms it was offered on Iraqi Kurdistan than with some failure of State Department PR to persuade 95 percent of Turks they were wrong.

Now, Gingrich warns, the State Department is at it again. Exhibit A: "The concept of the American Secretary of State going to Damascus to meet with a terrorist supporting, secret police wielding dictator is ludicrous. The United States military has created an opportunity to apply genuine economic, diplomatic and political pressure on Syria." Well, yes. But pressure to do exactly what? Gingrich may be horrified to learn that American Secretaries of State have been going to Damascus for years to meet the "secret police wielding, terrorist supporting" dictator, and his father before him. So do American intelligence officials, grateful for Syria's help in rolling up al-Qaeda types. A longstanding goal of U.S. foreign policy in the region is to persuade the dictator to sign a peace agreement with Israel (in the same way as U.S.-backed autocrats in Egypt and Jordan have done) and end support for Hezbollah and Palestinian radicals. Gingrich may also be disappointed to learn that just last year, Tony Blair welcomed the "terrorist supporting, secret police wielding dictator" to London for talks on the region, hoping to persuade him to join the anti-Saddam coalition (as his secret police wielding, terrorist supporting father had done in 1991).

Saber rattling to press Syria to modify its behavior is not something any one at State would likely disagree with. But Gingrich seems bent upon pursuing regime-change in Syria — a proposition that might have considerable appeal in Washington, but would horrify even those allies that worked with the U.S. in Iraq, starting with Britain. A related State Department transgression, for Gingrich, is that its "invention of a quartet for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations defies everything the United States has learned about France, Russia, and the United Nations. After the bitter lessons of the last five months, it is unimaginable that the United States would voluntarily accept a system in which the UN, the European Union, and Russia could routinely outvote President Bush's positions by three to one."

Gingrich is being disingenuous. Everybody knows that the Quartet is not a voting body; it's nothing more than a talk-shop and the decisions that count will be made in Washington. If the other three had any say whatsoever, the "road map" would have been published a year ago. And the Quartet was only invented as a fig leaf to cover the Bush administration from the urgent clamor among Arab and European allies for Washington to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The former Speaker's more immediate concern, obviously, is Iraq, on which he accuses the State Department of new treachery: "The people the State Department has sent to Iraq so far represent the worst instincts of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. They were promoted in a culture of propping up dictators, coddling the corrupt and ignoring the secret police. They have a constituency of Middle East governments deeply opposed to democracy in Iraq. Their instinct is to create a weak Iraqi government that will not threaten its Syrian, Iranian, Saudi and other dictatorial neighbors."

The State Department "Arabists" have long been a favorite target of Washington neoconservatives, precisely because their support for the hawkish Likud line in Israeli politics makes them hostile to any effort in Washington to balance U.S. foreign policy between support for Israel and recognition of Arab interests. Gingrich and his pals in and around the Pentagon, like Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz want to turn Iraq over to Ahmad Chalabi, the exiled banker (or swindler, according to the Jordanian courts) whom they have cultivated in their own image as a leader that would toe the U.S. line and embrace Israel. The crime of the "Arabists" has been to warn that a figure like Chalabi is likely to draw more opposition than support among ordinary Iraqis, and that anointing him as Washington's preferred leader would simply the project of stabilizing a post-Saddam Iraq that much more difficult.

Gingrich says the State Department is broken, and must be fixed. But for the kind of "diplomacy" he's talking about, the fiscally disciplined thing to do would simply be to abolish it altogether, and replace it with megaphone mounted atop a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.