July 9, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Darn that Newt!

Richard Holbrooke is a diplomat and a gentleman. Which means you can't read him the way you'd read Ann Coulter, Bill Safire, Tony Blankley  or others who make their livings speaking their mind as plainly as possible. You have to read between Mr. Holbrooke's lines.

Mr. Holbrooke is now taking on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – attacking his crusade for reform of the U.S. Department of State. That crusade began with a controversial speech at the American Enterprise Institute a couple of months ago, advanced with a “seminar” for senior journalists last month (hosted by Foreign Policy magazine and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) and continues with a major article in the current issue of Foreign Policy.

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post Mr. Holbrooke slammed what he called Mr. Gingrich's  “overheated attack rhetoric,” “stunning mishmash of wild charges,” and “nonsensical” suggestions.

But all of that really amounts to praising with faint damns.

Look more closely and you'll see that Mr. Holbrooke also allows that Mr. Gingrich has made “some thoughtful proposals,” that he has “positive ideas,” and “suggestions, many of which could be worthy of bipartisan support.”

More specifically, both in his op-ed and in a debate with Mr. Gingrich on Fox News Sunday this past weekend, Mr. Holbrooke's discreetly conceded that:

  • “Gingrich is right in calling for further reform.” (But if State is in good shape why is there a need for reform? And what does “further” mean? What reform has there been?)


  • “Most of his recommendations are neither revolutionary nor wrongheaded; in fact, many are similar to those that have come from internal State Department task forces over the years.” (So, why haven't those recommendations been acted upon?)


  •  “Gingrich's key recommendation is to make State ‘a more effective communicator of U.S. values around the world, place it more directly under the control of the president, and enable it to promote freedom and combat tyranny.' The great majority of Foreign Service officers would like nothing better than to be able to do just that — but they need better training, a better personnel system and far more resources.” (They do, indeed.)


  •  “In 1972, as a young Foreign Service officer, I wrote an article titled ‘The Machine That Fails.' It dealt with many of these same problems.” (And nearly 30 years later, those problems persist and that machine is still failing.)

In other words, when you boil off the froth it becomes clear that Mr. Holbrooke agrees with Mr. Gingrich's premise: State is broken. In other words, Mr. Holbrooke recognizes that Mr. Gingrich is not – in the immortal words of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage — “off his meds and out of therapy.” Rather, Mr. Gingrich is making a serious case about the need to transform the State Department into an institution that can handle the immense challenges of the 21st century.

The evidence that State is not now such an institution is compelling – even more than it was in February 2001 when the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (better known as the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission) completed a multi-year study that came to the conclusion that State had become “a crippled institution” in which “sound management, accountability, and leadership are lacking.”

That alarm led to no significant reforms – not even after 9/11. One thing the State Department bureaucracy has mastered is resisting change. Maybe to get a serious discussion started requires undiplomatically grabbing people by the lapels and shaking them — as Mr. Gingrich is apt to do. And what more appropriate time than now, after the State Department has failed to correctly read the French, failed to influence the Turks, been embarrassingly manipulated by the Saudis and persists in attempting to recycle policies that make the Arab-Israeli conflict worse.

One last point: Mr. Holbrooke argues with some conviction that Mr. Gingrich is wrong to charge that there are Foreign Service Officers and even political appointees who are not carrying out the president's policies. “The Foreign Service has its faults,” Mr. Holbrooke says, “but it is not insubordinate.”

The evidence suggests otherwise. Insiders will tell you about the anti-Bush cartoons that are passed around – and even displayed — at Foggy Bottom. A friend of mine, a long time FSO, recently suggested to a colleague that if he couldn't support the President's policies, the principled thing to do was to resign. “Easy for you to say,” came the reply. “You're not putting two kids through college.”

None of this is new. A former Reagan administration official recalled to me a similar conversation he had years ago. “You and I — we're professionals,” an FSO told him. “You're a military man. I'm a diplomat. People like us — we can't let the Christmas help run the store.”

The Christmas help? This President – any American President – deserves better. Mr. Holbrooke is too diplomatic to say that outright. But he knows it.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.