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Pressures on the U.S. State Department


Pressures on the U.S. State Department

By Brian Cloughley

Brian Cloughley is a former military officer who writes on international affairs. His website is www.briancloughley.com

Also published in The Daily Times (Pakistan)

There should be a shake-up in the manner Washington handles foreign policy. The first thing that should happen is official barring of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz from commenting on matters other than defence in its most confined definition.

Bush has almost achieved his objective of rendering internationalism inoperative. There is rejoicing in much of Washington that international cooperation on other than solely US terms is to all intents non-existent and that bilateralism and fatuously-titled ‘coalitions’ are the only foreign relations’ engagement routes he is prepared to take. Inevitably his foreign policy is in a condition of pandemic flux, but this is not the fault of the State Department’s professional diplomats who have to interpret as best they can the lurches and non-sequiturs of the Bush administration in its erratic but determined pursuit of world domination.

In the next edition of Foreign Policy magazine (July), Newt Gingrich, disgraced former Speaker of the US House of Representatives (yet still a member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board), will regale the world with some novel reasons for America’s failures in promoting its interests abroad. At least he admits there are problems, but his identification of the virus contaminating US dealings with foreign countries is barely credible.

Gingrich is yet another war-hawk who avoided service in Vietnam (the Defence Policy Board, reporting to Rumsfeld and until recently headed by the (also disgraced) Richard Pearle who remains a ‘valued member’ of the organisation, is stacked with them), and has an unsavoury personal history, but this hasn’t stopped him giving weird prescriptions for saving America from the foreign demons lurking in the pongy passages of his fevered mind.

According to Gingrich, the fault with Washington’s foreign relations lies with the wimps of the State Department. The blurb for his no doubt subtly-argued thesis to be published in Foreign Policy reads ‘Why is anti-American sentiment rising unabated around the globe? Try the US State Department, which has abdicated values and principle in favour of accommodation and passivity. Only a top-to-bottom reform and culture shock will transform the State Department into an effective communicator of President George W Bush’s foreign policy.’

It sounds as if Newt, who is a sensitive soul (he demanded his first wife sign divorce papers while she was in hospital recovering from cancer surgery), is seeking to appear again on the Washington stage which he left so precipitately following his censure by the House for ethics violations, thereby disabling the Republican Party in mid-term elections - a much more serious crime in some eyes.

It seems Gingrich is trying to pave the way for a political comeback by attacking those whom he imagines can’t defend themselves because they are public servants. The evil Senator McCarthy was good at this, and his main assaults and insults, too, were reserved for the nation’s diplomats, as when he declared ‘I have here in my hand a list of 205 - a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department’.

When Gingrich gave a speech to the American Enterprise Institute last month ago he was at his most bombastic and splenetic in declaring Powell’s visit to Damascus to meet the Syrian president to have been worse than ill-advised. He insulted Powell by saying his meeting with a ‘terrorist-supporting, secret police-wielding dictator is ludicrous’ and castigated the State Department by claiming its (sic) Middle East policy ‘will clearly throw away all the fruits of hard-won victory’ in the Bush war on Iraq. The man is off his trolley, and his allegation that the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs is guilty of fostering ‘a culture of propping-up dictators, coddling the corrupt (a bit rich, coming from the ethical Newt) and ignoring the secret police’ is just plain daft.

There is a rumour in Washington that Rumsfeld approved Newt’s attack on Powell and his department, and this isn’t hard to believe if only because Rumsfeld is so bent it is a wonder he doesn’t sometimes meet himself coming back along the corridor. But the vulnerability of this tactic is Newt’s professed assumption that foreign policy is defined by the State Department, which is nonsense.

His absurd jibes were robustly countered by the American Foreign Service Association which represents the 10, 500 professionals in the State Department. Its head, John Naland, wrote to Gingrich that ‘You have essentially accused these employees of treachery... Your charges are spurious’ , but the bold Newt ignored the riposte. His attack has backfired for the moment, but it appears he is regrouping and that the next foray is about to be launched.

This is not to say that there should not be a shake-up in the manner Washington handles foreign policy. Of course there should be. The first thing that should happen is official barring of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz from commenting on matters other than defence in its most confined definition, which would improve America’s world standing and foreign relations enormously.

State Department selection procedures need to be shaken up, too, because there are three dozen US ambassadors who have no qualifications for their jobs other than having provided handsome donations or favours to the Republican party or to Bush personally. (It has ever been thus, of course, whichever party was in power.) To appreciate my point, please imagine yourself to be an American diplomat of great competence with long experience of the Middle East. You are an Arabic speaker verging on the highest levels of your distinguished career. The most important embassy in the Middle East (apart from Tel Aviv) is Riyadh. But you don’t get that post because the appointment went to monoglot Robert Jordan, the campaign donor and lawyer who represented Bush ‘during a potentially sticky 1990s Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into insider trading at Bush’s now-defunct oil company, Harkin Energy Corporation’. (Thanks to www.opensecrets.org for this information.)

The ambassadors to France (Howard Leach; $399,359 to the Republicans), Italy (Melvin Sembler; $127,600), and Spain (George Argyros; $134,000) are other examples of heads of mission in important countries who bought their appointments. (There are thirty others in less high-profile capitals.) This is improper treatment of competent career professionals and is no way to promote respect for US foreign policy, so one has to agree about the need for constructive reform. But the trouble is that the Newt approach is redolent of demolition by diatribe. One wonders if we might hear, someday, ‘I have in my hand a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of Al Qaeda... who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department...’


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