April 23, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Foggier Bottom

Look at the history of the last dozen years and you can only come to one conclusion: Generals learn; ambassadors don't.

In 1991, U.S. forces methodically and efficiently pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. It was impressive, but nothing like the spectacular, high-tech, precision-guided blitzkrieg of 2003 – a quantum leap in American military capability and performance.

By contrast, U.S. diplomats, communicators and aid officials are today operating just as they did a dozen years ago, and a dozen years before that.

Of course, new technological developments can be more readily applied by soldiers on battlefields than by Foreign Service officers in drawing rooms. But it's also true that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the team he assembled at the Pentagon have been determined innovators. Most of those laboring at Foggy Bottom and in US embassies abroad have been anything but.

While there are notable exceptions (UN Ambassador John Negroponte comes to mind) many foreign policy mandarins are clearly entrenched in calcified habits and outmoded ways of thinking. They remain rigidly committed to old policies – even if those policies no longer make sense in light of changed circumstances and even (or especially) if those policies have failed repeatedly in the past.

Newt Gingrich has taken note of all this — and sounded an alarm. Historian, former Speaker of the House and, in my estimation, among the most creative strategic minds in the world today (full disclosure: he serves as Distinguished Advisor to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the bipartisan think tank on terrorism I helped establish just after 9/11), Gingrich recently ((4/22/03)) delivered a speech calling for nothing less than the “transformation” of the State Department in light of what he calls “the last seven months of diplomatic failure.”

Among other things, Gingrich is referring to the State Department's inability to persuasively communicate America's policies and intentions to key audiences overseas, its misreading of the extremes to which France was prepared to go to undermine the US, and the slow pace of reconstruction in liberated Afghanistan where, Gingrich said, “as of two weeks ago, not one mile of road had been paved.”

With US troops still cleaning up in Iraq, Gingrich warned, State is pursuing policies that “will clearly throw away all the fruits of hard-won victory.”  For instance, Gingrich said, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad openly hosts terrorist organizations. Indeed, Damascus is to terrorism something like what Nashville is to country music. In addition, Assad's regime, Gingrich said, is still developing “chemical weapons of mass destruction,” is still occupying Lebanon and is “still transmitting weapons and support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon where there are over 11,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.”

Nevertheless, State's guiding lights are proposing that Secretary of State Colin Powell go to Damascus to meet with Assad. Such a visit, Gingrich said, should not even be considered until there are obvious signs that Assad's regime is significantly changing its behavior.

Similarly, Gingrich said, State's “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 position by three to one (or four to one if the State Department voted its cultural beliefs against the President's policies). …This is worse than the UN inspections process – a clear disaster for American diplomacy.”

In some of the media, Gingrich's criticisms are being spun as a personal attack on Powell and/or an ideological battle between conservatives and moderates within the Republican foreign policy community. State's spokesmen are responding defensively.

But as Gingrich made clear, he admires Powell and believes Powell may be better qualified than just about anyone else to make the “bold, dramatic” changes required if State is to become more like Defense – and less like the INS.

America can now deploy the most fearsome warriors the world has ever seen. Why should we not also have the most resourceful diplomats, the most strategic communicators and the most ingenious aid practitioners? Without that, the United States will not become the leader the world requires in the 21st Century.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism, and a Scripps Howard columnist.