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by Alan Berlind

The author, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, has been a past contributor to American Diplomacy. His is a different take on the current role of the State Department and its leadership in the management of U.S. diplomacy from that of Christopher M. Jones elsewhere in this publication–see “The Other Side of Powell’s Record”—Assoc. Ed.

The title of the farewell piece by the director general of the Foreign Service in the February issue of State Magazine, “Thank you, Goodbye and Good Luck,” might have suggested recognition of the tough road ahead for his colleagues, the Department of State and the country at large had he not used his valedictory to praise categorically two individuals who must be seen to share responsibility for the demise of the Department as both the primary source of foreign policy expertise and advice to the President of the United States and the principal executor of his policies. Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, on announcing his retirement at the end of a distinguished career, could not have been expected to criticize his two bosses in what is the official in-house publication of the Department. But he went beyond the call of duty in writing of Secretary Condoleezza Rice: “Her leadership builds on the wonderful legacy left to us by Secretary Powell. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton: If we have reached further ‘it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’.”

All members of the career Foreign Service have an obligation to fully support and conscientiously implement the policies of successive administrations; if they cannot do so, and if they believe their opposition within established channels to be ineffective, they must resign as, several did in opposition to American policy on Iraq. But there is absolutely no obligation on the part of any citizen to tolerate, much less support, those who have played leading roles in misleading the American people and bringing into question the good word of the United States abroad. The prominence of both Powell (“aluminum tubes”) and Rice (“mushroom cloud”) in the essentially dishonest campaign to drum up support for the American invasion of Iraq has been thoroughly documented. The more limited purpose here is to explore the contribution each has made to the State Department’s loss of influence in policy debates and ask whether its primacy can ever be restored following institutional developments that will make such a recovery extremely difficult to achieve.

There is a sad irony in the commonly voiced view that contrasts the styles and accomplishments of Powell and Rice with respect to management, on the one hand, and policy on the other. The former has been hailed as the fiery defender of the institution both within the building and before Congress, as he fought for increased budgets and greater recognition of the contribution made by the men and women of State to the security of the nation. At the same time, with equal justification, he has been widely criticized for having ceded the substance of foreign policy to others, principally Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Rice herself as national security advisor, and their underlings.

As secretary, Rice is said by many to have taken back the reins of foreign policy while treating the career service to relative neglect and some disdain. As expressed in an article in the February issue of the Foreign Service Journal, the organ of the American Foreign Service Association: “Some admire ‘Condi’ for raising State’s profile after years in the wilderness during which the Pentagon dominated foreign policy. But others are equally adamant that she is mainly interested in defending President Bush’s policies and hasn’t shown nearly the same level of attention to management of the Department, and receptiveness to employee input, that won widespread praise and admiration for her predecessor, Colin Powell.”

Therein lies the irony. Whatever Powell did for the Department and the Foreign Service, his somewhat hapless surrender of his own and the Department’s influence must be seen on balance to have seriously eroded the ability of State and it’s representatives abroad to carry out their mission effectively and efficiently. His accomplishments on management, personnel and budgetary matters must be weighed against the indisputable fact that he let the department become a bit player in the foreign policy game. As for Rice, whether or not she has failed to pick up where Powell left off on such matters, claims as to her accomplishments on the policy side have yet to be substantiated, and one can question whether she has made any meaningful headway in retrieving the reins of power from Rumsfeld and the Pentagon. On the contrary, it would appear that American foreign policy is today more than ever a tool available to the military establishment and its civilian leadership, free to pronounce themselves on and implement both military and non-military programs that directly affect relations between America and its friends and enemies. Beginning before the invasion of Iraq and continuing to this day, the world has been treated to Rumsfeld’s take on foreign policy, from “old and new Europe” to the more recently purported similarities between Adolph Hitler and elected Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. Does that world audience ever hear rebuttals or corrections or modifications from State, much less the White House? Rarely.

Who, then, is in charge?

We live in an era when major legal and political scandals quickly dwindle into technical disputes over the language of the law and are put to rest by internal inquiries. A case in point involves the activities of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq, working with an American contractor, in producing news stories and commentary for placement in Iraqi media without attribution, and paying the media moguls for the privilege. (The American taxpayer gets two bills: one for the bribe, one for the contractor.) When this program was first exposed, White House officials publicly expressed great concern, and little was heard from State. Now we learn that the Pentagon’s internal inquiry has concluded that neither U.S. law nor “Pentagon guidelines” were violated by the practice, leaving the military free to carry on with the deception and to continue to make foreign policy as it pleases. Thus far, there has been no report of a challenge from State or, for that matter, Congress.

Another Pentagon initiative illustrates the same trend. After heavy lobbying from that quarter, Congress slipped into the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act the authority for the Defense Department to spend funds from its own budget for foreign military assistance, until now the province of State with respect to the conditions and standards required of potential recipients. Expressions of concern from here and there led to the usual tinkering with the language, but not before Rice had joined Rumsfeld in writing to urge Congress to pass the measure. This secretary of state seems unconcerned about military inroads into foreign policy.

Nor, absent any evidence to the contrary, does she consider the establishment of large, permanent military bases in Iraq or elsewhere either a foreign policy issue or a negative factor in U.S. relations with the rest of the world. “Permanent” is of course a relative term, as we learned when many “permanent” bases in Europe and Asia had to go following the arrival in power of popularly elected governments. It has been amply demonstrated that, with certain special exceptions (e.g., Germany, Japan and South Korea), American military presence will be tolerated in the long term only by totalitarian regimes that are not inconvenienced by popular opinion and that believe the bases serve their own interest in longevity. Consider the tragi-comic opera of Uzbekistan, where Rumsfeld made a friend and ally of a government described simultaneously by the State Department on its web site as one that systematically practiced torture. Only after the British Ambassador there resigned in protest and brought the situation to greater public notice did State begin to feint and weave, with the perverse result that Uzbek President Karimov took the initiative to end the cozy relationship rather than the United States. But before that happened, where was American foreign policy being made?

The obvious pre-eminence of the Defense establishment in the formulation of foreign policy represents a danger of much greater import than the bureaucratic triumph of Rumsfeld over successive rivals at State, a danger, however, that lies outside the scope of this more limited essay on the collapse of authority at State. The military aside, both Powell and Rice have seen their authority seriously undercut from within by John Bolton. The latter was clearly an in-house threat as under secretary for arms control and International Security under Powell, and it was reportedly Rice who blocked his elevation to the post of deputy secretary. Instead, she supported his dispatch to the United Nations, as if that would prospectively remove the thorn from her side.

Bolton’s views on the UN and multilateralism are a matter of record, and Rice may in fact have believed that his posting to New York would not disserve her own purposes. But we can ask whether she was prepared for the degree of free-wheeling that allowed him to tell British members of Parliament in early March, according to one of them, with respect to possible military action against Iran: “They must know everything is on the table and they must understand what that means. We can hit different points along the line. You only have to take out one part of their nuclear operation to take the whole thing down.” And, while Rice herself was quoted as saying on March 5 something that sounds like a very different line (“Nobody has said that we have to rush immediately to sanctions of some kind”), on the same day Bolton was seen on CNN and other cable networks all over the world telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in New York, with the AIPAC logo conspicuous behind him, that Iran stood to suffer “painful consequences” if it took the wrong decisions. Again, we can only guess whether Rice or anyone else at State approved those remarks in advance and, more crucially, their delivery at that forum? In any case, AIPAC was told the following day by Israeli Ambassador Daniel Gillerman: “While it may be true-and probably is-that not all Muslims are terrorists, it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslims.” The Muslim world, with Bolton’s image barely off the screen, and Cheney waiting in the wings with his own remarks, was listening. Is Rice?

One cannot speak of State’s dilemma without touching on the “civilian” governance of Iraq following the military invasion, beginning with the appointment of L. Paul Bremer III to head the Coalition Provisional Authority. Bremer, a former career State official with senior management experience, had no substantive credentials for the job. Is it surprising, then, that he selected similarly unqualified people to staff his operation? Having been tabbed for the job by Rumsfeld, to whom he would report, Bremer owed nothing to State and over time accepted the assignment of young staffers whose only qualification was political loyalty to the administration. Think about it: young, inexperienced partisan loyalists were sent to a foreign country to perform difficult tasks for which they had no training – tasks bearing on the security of the United States. Sadly, it turns out that at least some of those foreign service officers who broke into the line-up were more interested in their promotion potential than their jobs (see below).

The Defense Department, John Bolton, and young political enthusiasts are not the only nemeses challenging State for foreign policy authority. There is also the phenomenon of out-sourcing, witness the case of the International Republican Institute and, according to its literature, its “programs designed to promote the practice of democracy in more than 50 countries.” The IRI, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is a private organization the board of which, however, is chaired by Senator John McCain and peopled by, among others, Senator Chuck Hagel, Jeane Kirkpatrick, J. William Middendorf II, and our own foreign service alumnus and “Secretary for a Day” Larry Eagleburger. The IRI most famously played a prominent role in the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide while undermining former American Ambassador Brian Dean Curran and “official” U.S. policy. Colin Powell as usual played ball, praising democracy and condemning it in the same breath.

The tale of State’s tailspin would not be complete without brief mention of internal personnel developments apparently supported by Rice that are sapping both morale and efficiency. Five former officials and operatives of the Republican National Committee, along with the usual contingent of campaign contributors, have recently been rewarded with ambassadorships in sunny climes, and two White House staffers from Texas have graduated to assistant secretary, which is to say policy-making, level at State for no apparent substantive reason.

Perhaps more depressing than the accelerated political favor game, but also carrying a political flavor, was the naming of three mid-level career Foreign Service officers as deputy assistant secretaries in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. None had been promoted into the Senior Foreign Service at the time of their appointments, creating a situation in which they will be called upon to evaluate the performance of several more senior officers serving as office directors. All three had previously worked on the National Security Council staff under the new assistant secretary, himself a senior Foreign Service officer who surely had a hand in arranging this reunion. Added to this is the current debate about the promotion value of assignments to Iraq, in which it is being suggested that hardship and political loyalty must trump performance in the competition for promotion against others partying in Paris or suffering in hell holes not bathed in this White House’s spotlight. Those officers arguing that case will have been pleased by Rice’s recent announcement that she will shift dozens of positions from Europe-Old Europe, presumably-to dangerous posts elsewhere, and that failure to accept such assignments will kill chances of promotion.

Whether the shift in responsibility for American foreign policy as described above is irreversible cannot yet be ascertained. But it is surely time to ask: W(h)ither State?End.

Alan Berlind
Alan Berlind

Alan Berlind’s career in the Foreign Service included stints as deputy chief of mission in Khartoum and Athens, political advisor at the U.S. mission to NATO as well as earlier tours in Greece, Ghana, Belgium and Washington. In retirement he specializes in European and transatlantic political and politico-military affairs. He has taught international relations and European integration at two American colleges in Greece.


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