Diplomats on the Defensive

Times Staff Writer

Diplomats are paid to have cool minds and even cooler temperaments, but inside the State Department, plenty of America’s elite diplomats are privately seething.

They are up in arms over what they see as the hijacking of foreign policymaking by the Pentagon and efforts to undercut their boss, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

“I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, ‘There’s been a military coup,’ and then it all makes sense,” said one veteran foreign service officer.


The first two years of the Bush administration have seen what the diplomat called a “tectonic shift” of decision-making power on foreign policy from State to the Defense Department, one that has seen the Pentagon become the dominant player on such key issues as Iraq, North Korea and Afghanistan.

“Why aren’t eyebrows raised all over the United States that the secretary of Defense is pontificating about Syria?” the official, who declined to be identified, said, fuming.

“Can you imagine the Defense secretary after World War II telling the world how he was going to run Europe?” he added, noting it was Secretary of State George C. Marshall who delivered that seminal speech in 1947.

Leading conservatives and Pentagon officials say such comments show the State Department’s failure to grasp how profoundly global politics and U.S. foreign policy interests have been redefined, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

President Bush’s national security strategy calls for a forward-leaning, muscular foreign policy to prevent terrorists and “rogue” states from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction and to confront such threats, by military force if necessary, before they reach American shores.

“Anyone who thinks that you can conveniently separate foreign policy, diplomacy, national security and war-fighting is clueless about the realities of global affairs, power politics and modern” war, a senior Pentagon official said.

Neoconservatives argue that the Pentagon is ascendant because it has better internalized the president’s worldview. The State Department, they say, has not succeeded in its main task of explaining U.S. policy to the world and winning support for it.

Pentagon officials stressed that they are cooperating with State, but the military’s swift victories in Afghanistan and Iraq have boosted its stature. “When there is a track record of success, that tends to earn a heavier and heavier workload,” the senior Pentagon official said.

In public, Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have friendly relations, and their policy differences are cordial, if hard-argued. In private, Powell is said to roll his eyes at the volume of “Rummygrams” routinely sent his way that offer the Defense secretary’s views on foreign policy.

However, at the day-to-day working level, mid-level State Department bureaucrats say they are alarmed by the ideological fervor of the Pentagon’s civilian decision-makers and by how they leave State out of important decisions, brush aside the diplomats to get things done, or ignore tasks they do not want to perform.

After months of bitter battle over who should run postwar Iraq, the two departments finally agreed on L. Paul Bremer III, who was appointed Tuesday by Bush to be the top civilian administrator.

But in the larger ideological struggle, there is no compromise in sight.

Diplomats interviewed for this story -- all of whom insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the political infighting -- said they are profoundly worried about what they describe as the administration’s arrogance or indifference to world public opinion, which they fear has wiped out, in less than two years, decades of effort to build goodwill toward the United States.

They cite as an example fallout from Iran being included in Bush’s “axis of evil.” Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, the State Department had been ordered to try to befriend Iranian moderates in order to counter that nation’s Islamic fundamentalists. During the war in Afghanistan, American diplomats persuaded Tehran to allow U.S. military jets to fly over Iranian territory, a surprise foreign policy success.

However, within hours of Bush’s State of the Union speech last year linking Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” Tehran canceled U.S. overflight rights, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations.

“It has taken them an incredibly short time” to anger many other nations, said one veteran senior diplomat.

A mid-level official complained that intemperate remarks by administration hawks have damaged long-term American interests. “Goodwill is an element of national security -- and perhaps one of the most profound elements of national security,” he said.

The long-simmering interagency battle burst into the open last month when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a close friend of Rumsfeld, accused the State Department of being “ineffective and incoherent” and of a near-treasonous failure to advance U.S. interests on the eve of the Iraq war.

Gingrich portrayed the foreign policy disputes within the administration as a clash of worldviews between a president focused on “facts, values and outcomes” and a State Department focused on “process, politeness and accommodation.” Instead of taking advantage of the diplomatic momentum created by the Iraq war, “now the State Department is back at work pursuing policies that will clearly throw away all the fruits of hard-won victory,” Gingrich charged.

Rumsfeld has said Gingrich was speaking only for himself. But the address and other attacks from neoconservatives are being viewed within the State Department as an effort to politically “decapitate” Powell.

Gingrich’s speech triggered a bitter public response from the State Department. Powell noted during Senate testimony that diplomats are supposed to craft alliances and find diplomatic solutions. “That’s what we do,” he said. “We do it damn well, and I am not going to apologize to anyone.”

In an interview with USA Today, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said sarcastically, “Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy.”

Gingrich “said there’s been this ‘massive failure of diplomacy,’ ” noted a mid-level State Department official. “There has been a massive failure of diplomacy, but it’s because of the president and Don Rumsfeld. This is blame-shifting at its best.”

Rumsfeld’s dismissal of opposition among some allies to the Iraq war as the political weakness of “Old Europe” and other comments are cited by moderates in and out of government as having sabotaged Powell’s efforts before the war to get a second United Nations resolution authorizing force against Iraq. A New York Times columnist recently dubbed Rumsfeld “the anti-diplomat,” a moniker that has caught on in Washington.

“The votes [against the U.S.] in the U.N. had nothing to do with Iraq. It was personal” toward America, a senior diplomat said. “I don’t think this group realizes how arrogant they come off. It’s a PR nightmare.”

The official said he agreed with the president’s decision to go to war in Iraq, and so did most officials at State, contrary to the department’s reputation among neoconservatives as a bastion of wimpy multilateralism. “The issue for a lot of us is the way it’s been done,” he said.

Many within the department dismissed Gingrich as a political has-been whose speech had overreached and backfired, causing the president to defend and side with Powell. But among some conservatives, Gingrich gave voice to complaints about the State Department that they feel have been ignored for years.

Conservatives cite a long-standing situation within the department of what is often called “local-itis,” the process by which foreign service officers come to identify and sympathize more closely with the countries in whose affairs they specialize than with American interests as defined by the sitting president.

Some also see failures during Powell’s leadership. John Tkacik, a 24-year veteran of the State Department now at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, said there is a perception among conservatives that the U.S. inability to secure Turkey’s cooperation in the war on Iraq was a diplomatic defeat for which the State Department should shoulder responsibility.

Many inside the Beltway regard the increasingly public rift between the agencies as just another in unending bureaucratic wars that mark life in Washington, but one that could damage U.S. interests if it encourages foreign countries to try to exploit the conflict. In South Korea, for example, many officials believe the North Korean leadership is more likely to miscalculate U.S. intentions because of the policy rift between administration hawks and doves.

Neoconservatives such as Charles Krauthammer argue that it is precisely the message that the U.S. is willing to use military force -- preemptively if necessary -- that will convince regimes such as North Korea and Syria to behave.

And America should not shirk from using this power to achieve democratic transformation in the Middle East and elsewhere, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz often says.

For decades, the State Department has been fighting a mostly losing battle with critics from successive incoming administrations who have accused it of everything from harboring Communists to coddling China.

“This building is chock-full of people who are deep, deep believers in this country and its principles and its defense,” said a young diplomat who opposed the Iraq war.

The current ideological spat “has nothing to do with whether U.S. interests are being defended and everything to do with trying to check a Pentagon run amok. It’s the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ syndrome: There’s very much the dominance by this institution whose sole role ultimately ... is to kill people and blow things up and they do that very well.”

“I, like many others, am carrying a great deal of anger and at times even shame over the way we as a nation are conducting ourselves,” he said.

Such impassioned sentiments do not appear to be widely shared.

But what is widespread within the State Department is the view that the U.S. intervention in Iraq ultimately must be judged in part by whether it generates more anti-American terrorism. Diplomats worry that the administration is insensitive to the risks its policies carry.

“When I was a kid, conservatives were the ones who did not want to take big risks” to change the world, recalled one middle-aged veteran at State, adding that “these people seem willing to take huge risks” that can truly be termed radical.

“Their willingness to roll the dice with people’s lives I find troubling,” he said.

Powell remains highly popular within the State Department. But some wonder whether the former general is too loyal to Bush and should consider resigning if his powers are being usurped with presidential approval by the hawks agitating on his right flank.

Others note that most such resignations on principle do almost nothing to change the political system.

Powell reportedly has told close associates he doesn’t need the job, but Bush knows he is loyal and will carry out the president’s decisions. “If you come after us, you’re in for a fight, and I’m going to fight back,” Powell told senators last week. And senior officials say Bush, though more conservative than Powell, has frequently sided with the former general on key issues.

But some of Powell’s underlings, much as they revere their boss, are worried that their team is losing more battles than they’d like to admit.

“If you’ve got to deal with the Pentagon at the working level, it’s a difficult existence,” one senior official conceded. “They’re so ideological, and they’re so over the top now that the testosterone is flowing” since the Iraq war.

“But morale here is not crashing,” he said. “On the contrary, we are entering a period in which we are going to need to turn to diplomacy -- in the Middle East and beyond.”