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Has the Time Come For Radical Reform of the U.S. State Department?

Author: Richard W. Murphy
July 7, 2003
Insight on the News


Newt Gingrich justly enjoys the reputation of being one of Washington's more combative and entertaining polemicists. However, in his fondness for swinging the broadsword most recently in his American Enterprise Institute speech slashing at the State Department for its prewar recommendations on Iraq he sidestepped his real target: the White House. This must have been deliberate because he knows better than most that the secretary of state makes recommendations, but the president decides the course of U.S. foreign policy. Gingrich also knows, though he might be loath to admit it, that loyalty to the president's decisions is just as much the hallmark of the State Department as it is of our uniformed services. So why pick on the faceless striped-pants set?

He may have been fronting for the neoconservatives at the Pentagon who have missed no opportunity to snipe at the State Department and its alleged defeatist agenda. State is an easy target, with no constituency ready to come to its defense in Congress or the private sector as the Department of Defense [DoD] enjoys. In any event, the evident itch of the Pentagon's neoconservative officials to control U.S. foreign policy should be resisted. U.S. armed forces have shown an unmatchable ability on the battlefield in quickly disposing of the military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in both those countries it is proving far harder to put those countries on their feet and head them in the direction of more-representative government.

This is not to argue that the State Department ideally is equipped for today's tasks in rebuilding the political, economic and social structures of those countries. And the neoconservatives are correct in charging that service at State breeds a cautious attitude to regime change. It normally does take a guarded approach, asking about the consequences of change and the degree to which Washington can control its pace and direction. Whether this is a virtue depends on the specific case.

It's fair to ask whether either State or the DoD distinguished itself in thinking through and planning for what we likely would confront the day after the war ended in Iraq. Hopefully the current confusion over how to secure the peace in Baghdad will quickly end. But for the moment, the Bush administration is caught up in a messy and costly course of on-the-job training trying to, for example, restore law and order without adequate military police. Overall, Washington appears to be improvising as it works through the problems of Iraq's postwar governance.

The important question facing our country today in Iraq is not the turf battle between federal departments, an obsession of those within the Washington Beltway. The much more serious issue is how soon the administration will enlist the support of the international community to deal with the complex problems of nation-building in Iraq. The ability of our "coalition of the willing" to build a nation is untested, and Washington's negative attitude toward U.N. involvement in Iraq persists.

The present confusion has served to sharpen the knives of those who opposed the war in the first place and those who aver that not only did President George W. Bush "fail to make the case" that Saddam Hussein's regime was linked to global terrorism, but that there may have been witting manipulation of the intelligence which the administration used to build its case for going to war. No one outside the administration can judge the truth of such allegations. The CIA already has started investigating, and the relevant congressional committees state that they also will investigate the prewar gathering and analysis of intelligence on Iraq.

For perspective, it should be noted that the charges hurled by Gingrich and his admirers are nothing new. Were State-DoD relations less agitated in the past than under this administration? Certainly under Ronald Reagan there were tensions between the two departments, but in retrospect they seem to have been much better contained. They definitely were less melodramatic. Facing the Soviets obviously helped close ranks in that administration.

Twenty years ago, when I was asked to be assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia, I soon found that the bureau very often had to operate at the bumpy crossroads of domestic politics and foreign policy, incurring criticism in both areas. Our handling of the Arab-Israeli peace process always was scrutinized closely and criticized loudly by both American Jewish and American Arab organizations, as was our pursuit of policies aimed at managing and then ending the Lebanese civil war.

However, I was not prepared for the lesson I had to learn early on that my position, admittedly on the lowest rung of the policy ladder, gave me no guarantee that I would receive advance warning of presidential decisions, even on issues with which I supposedly was directly involved.

One such wake-up call came with the White House decision to withdraw the Marines from Beirut in March 1984. Before I arrived at the State Department that morning, the policy line had been clear: the Hezbollah terrorists who had bombed the Marine barracks in October 1983 would not drive us from Beirut. We would not stay indefinitely, but as the president himself had said on Feb. 4, in repeating his familiar position, there was "no reason to cut and run. If we do, we'll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people." Only a few weeks later I was surprised, along with the rest of the world, by the timing of the announcement that the Marines had sailed away during the night.

The decision to pull the Marines out was right. The original decision to commit the Marines to Beirut in the wake of the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps had set no limit, either publicly or privately, on the period they would stay in Lebanon. Tragically the Marines, deployed in Beirut to symbolize our determination to help restore law and order, had become the victim of Lebanese perception that Washington had taken sides in the civil war. But the point of this story is that withdrawal of the Marines was a closely held presidential decision. It was not one to be laid at the door of the State Department as one more example of its proclivity to abandon America's friends and thereby deprive the United States of respect in the eyes of Middle Easterners.

The Middle East peace process has engaged the talents of many officers, some of whom the State Department had assigned to lengthy training in the region's history and languages. For some years, Arabic-language officers were never assigned to Israel, the theory being that they would lose their contacts in the Arab world and could not be reassigned there. Later on, some were cross-trained in both Arabic and Hebrew and have served in Israel as well as in our embassies in the Arab world. By the 1970s, the State Department wisely had abandoned its policy of not assigning Jewish-Americans to the embassy in Israel or to Arab countries, Greek-Americans to Athens, Russian-Americans to Moscow, etc. But the canard nonetheless persisted that State's policy recommendations on Arab-Israel were controlled by "Arabists" who supported the "Arab cause" for a variety of reasons, including their romanticized vision of the noble Bedouin and their misguided fears that a pro-Israel policy would cost the United States access to Arab oil.

I hear disturbing echoes of this analysis today from those who argue the State Department is advocating ideas it knows can only weaken Israel. The latest focus of their attack is on the "road map" and its goal of a viable, independent Palestinian state based on the West Bank and Gaza. The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has for the last few years acknowledged that he has no problem with the concept of an independent state has not diminished the conviction of some of Israel's U.S. supporters that we are helping push Israel onto a slippery slope leading to its destruction.

Of course it was President Bush who endorsed a "road map" for Middle East peace. The drawing of the map primarily was the work of the United States, assisted by the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Bush also now has decided to take a dramatically greater personal step toward the Middle East peace process by calling the summit in early June between himself and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Predictably, this will intensify domestic U.S. warnings against pressuring Israel. The fact that Bush is ready to wade into the Middle East swamp at the beginning of his re-election campaign is remarkable. It surely will alarm those among his advisers who believe he should not alienate any sector of American opinion. They will remind him just how intractable the issues are, recalling Bill Clinton's failure to strike an Israeli-Palestinian deal despite his prolonged and intense personal involvement.

Will these moves toward deeper presidential engagement in the Middle East trigger another skirmish between State and the DoD? Will securing the support of the influential neoconservatives at the DoD for this new attempt at Middle East peacemaking mean going along with their campaign for the United States to cut down to size all of Israel's avowed enemies? Before the war Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that the road to peace in the Middle East runs through Baghdad. Does that also apply to Tehran and Damascus? The administration has denied that a military campaign is being planned against either Iran or Syria. But it has voiced harsh criticisms against Syria, reminding Damascus of the "lessons of Iraq." The accusation that Tehran is harboring al-Qaeda operatives and is working to develop a nuclear-weapons program carries an implicit threat of U.S. action, perhaps because it so closely repeats the way DoD officials built their case for attacking Iraq more than a year before the war.

Perhaps the difficulties we are experiencing in Iraq, together with the uncompleted task of rebuilding Afghanistan, will give pause to thoughts of further military actions in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. Yet it is hard to shake the impression that some U.S. officials in key positions to influence overall foreign policy suffer from hubris with their view that the United States is obliged to take the lead in transforming that entire troubled region.

Murphy is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He held successive appointments as ambassador to Mauritania, Syria, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, and also served as assistant secretary of

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