- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2001

State Department officials say concern is spreading through Foggy Bottom as staff await a decision by incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell on who will take over the highly charged Middle East portfolio.

The incoming Bush administration has been reluctant to signal its intentions for the region while the lame-duck Clinton team engages in a rush of diplomacy that could see a far-reaching peace agreement or leave Israel and the Palestinians mired in worsening violence.

President-elect George W. Bush has repeatedly said there is "only one president" at a time.

But with time running out on the last-ditch effort, "there is somewhat growing anxiety about who [Mr. Powell] is bringing," said one department source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross said recently in a speech in California that he is prepared to move on along with President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

However, a source close to the issues said that Mr. Ross, having spent much of his adult professional life in the effort to forge peace in the Middle East, likely would accept an invitation to remain with the U.S. mediation team.

Far more likely, said the source, is that Mr. Ross' second-in-command, Aaron Miller, will be invited to stay and work under a new Middle East chief, bringing continuity to U.S. policy but also making it easier for a new top official to assume control.

Names heard around the building for the position of assistant secretary for Near East affairs include current Ambassador to Jordan William J. Burns and Ambassador to Egypt Daniel C. Kurtzer, who is an orthodox Jew.

Given the importance of the Israeli-Arab dispute to U.S. foreign and domestic policy, Mr. Powell is said to be considering placing former top diplomat Edward Djerijian in charge of the Middle East by naming him either undersecretary of state for political affairs, a post now held by Thomas Pickering, or counselor, replacing Wendy Sherman.

Mr. Djerijian, now with the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University in Houston, served in the administration of Mr. Bush's father as ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary for the Near East.

Sources said he was likely to return in a more senior post and manage the Middle East negotiations from there.

Former senior diplomat Michael Armacost is also said to be in the running for deputy secretary of state, replacing Clinton college pal Strobe Talbott. Former naval officer James Kelly may be named assistant secretary for East Asia.

Mr. Powell has gotten off to a late start in his transition plans because of the delay in the Florida vote certification, followed by the holiday season. Senior appointments are expected next week.

Domestic political appointees have been told to prepare to leave their posts by Feb. 1 and overseas political appointees by March 1, unless invited to withdraw their letters of resignation and remain.

Officials will learn whether their letters of resignation have been accepted on Jan. 21, the day after Mr. Bush is inaugurated.

Mr. Powell has been working in the building and has received briefings from the regional and functional departments on the major issues as well as the short-, medium- and long-term issues of importance to the United States in each area.

"He's had pretty much all the formal briefings already and now is having ad hoc meetings where he is asking about specific issues," said the source.

"He's been businesslike and collegial. People felt he came with an open mind to explore the terrain, but he is well-grounded in all the issues.

"There has been a high degree of detail and he has shown comfort with the material."

Mr. Powell also has asked that he not be addressed as "general" inside the building.

While the makeup of the new team remains unknown, about 1,000 State Department employees have signed a petition calling for increased funding for the department.

"We make this appeal recognizing that armed conflict often begins when diplomacy fails," said the petition, which is headed, "An Open Letter to the Next Secretary of State."

People are wearing blue ribbons as a sign of support for the petition, said a staff official in the office of Ted Strickler, deputy assistant secretary for foreign missions, who is heading the petition drive.

"The unfortunate reality is that the Department of State is ill-equipped and ill-prepared to meet the foreign policy challenges of the 21st century," says the petition. "Outdated procedures and chronic resource shortages have taken their toll."

Mr. Powell pledged at the news conference where his nomination was announced on Dec. 16 in Austin, Texas, that he would tell Congress "in the most powerful terms that I can muster that the dedicated men and women of the State Department need the same kind of support" that is given to the U.S. Army.

A department source said it is expected Mr. Powell will be more successful in winning resources for the department than Mrs. Albright had been.

"No one is concerned that Powell will not be able to carry the department's weight in the interagency process," said the source.


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