Former ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke entered the State Department debate last week, attacking former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and defending Foggy Bottom. But being a product of the Foreign Service himself, Mr. Holbrooke appears unwilling to address the real issue: the State Department’s corrosive culture.
In a Washington Post op-ed last Tuesday, Mr. Holbrooke argued that there is little wrong with the Foreign Service, labeling Mr. Gingrich’s attacks a series of “wild charges.” He contends that there is no way the State Department could be disloyal to President Bush, because career Foreign Service officers (FSOs) “are trained (like the military) to serve loyally every president.” And since the political appointees at the State Deparment couldn’t be undermining Mr. Bush — Mr. Holbrooke is right about that — he concludes that Gingrich must be, in essence, delusional.
There are many talented and exceptional FSOs — which is not an obligatory, throwaway line — but they are outnumbered and overwhelmed in an institution where it is not only acceptable to lampoon Mr. Bush, but encouraged. But it’s not an issue of Democrats hating a Republican president, though that may be some of it. It’s not even an issue of liberal disdain for an unabashed conservative in the Oval Office. It’s about colliding worldviews.
The Foggy Bottom mindset considers “stability” the Holy Grail. Members of the Foreign Service see the world as it is, and wish for it to remain the same. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, sees the world and wishes for a different world, a better world. The State Department careerists are disdainful of the president’s “simplistic” worldview.
It’s not that the Foreign Service likes dictators or despises freedom — though some of its members may be ambivalent. But the pursuit of “stability” has resulted in a determined effort to maintain “smooth relations” with regimes as evil as the Iranian mullahs.
As a sop to the thugs running Iran, the State Department’s number two official, Richard Armitage, called the nation a “democracy” in February. Even while the White House is supporting the thousands of protesters, Secretary of State Colin Powell last Wednesday called President MohammadKhatami “freely elected.” But considering that the ruling mullahs rejected 234 of the other 237 candidates who wanted to compete with Mr. Khatami, calling the puppet of the mullahs “freely elected” is a not-so-subtle jab at the president’s description of Mr. Khatami and the mullahs as the “unelected few.”
Iran is not an isolated example. The commander in chief has been repeatedly undermined, both directly and indirectly. The State Departmen careerists — apparently under the orders of Mr. Armitage — tried to pressure auditors to help “shut down” the pro-democracy Iraqi National Congress, even though President Bush has explicitly — and repeatedly — supported the INC. And lest we forget, this spring State concealed for three weeks North Korea’s stunning admission that it had started reprocessing plutonium. Because the State Department did not want North Korea’s declaration to derail scheduled talks, even the White House was kept in the dark.
The Foreign Service is perhaps the most insulated section of the federal government — its members, in almost all situations, are hired, fired, transferredor promoted by the Foreign Service, not the secretary of state — resulting in loyalty not to the president, but to the Foreign Service.
Decisions regarding termination, for example, can only be made by the Foreign Service Grievance Board, which is comprised of members of the Foreign Service. The panel is a staunch defender of its members’ peers; getting fired from the Foreign Service is nearly impossible. Last year, out of 10,000 members in the Foreign Service, only 12 were let go. No one was fired for incompetence. The number for insubordination is probably the same, but it is not even a recorded category of grounds for termination.
Mr. Holbrooke himself has first-hand experience with the cloak of protection provided by the Foreign Service. After his retirement, the former ambassador allegedly used State Department resources to help advance the business interests of his employer, investment bank and financial services company Credit Suisse.
According to a former State Department official with intimate knowledge of the investigation, private citizen Holbrooke would call people he knew on staffs of various embassies to set meetings up with foreign officials, and he allegedly used these people who used to work under him to provide him office space and drivers. His punishment? A plea bargain down to one civil count and a $5,000 fine. His reward? Then-President Clinton immediately appointed him to be ambassador to the U.N.
Mr. Holbrooke was right on one account. Mr. Gingrich’s proposed reforms are quite modest. Too modest, actually. The former speaker of the House does not call for any overhaul of the State Department’s personnel or any efforts to truly reform Foggy Bottom’s corrosive culture. Any such attempt would be messy and time-consuming — not to mention possibly doomed to failure — but it must be done. Until it happens, the State Department will continue to undermine President Bush.
Joel Mowbray is a contributing editor of National Review Online.