Tuesday, November 16, 2004

In naming Condoleezza Rice as his pick for secretary of state, President Bush is sending his most loyal adviser to his most disloyal agency: The State Department. But no matter what changes she makes — and many are needed — the bureaucracy is entrenched almost to the point of being impenetrable, meaning real reform could well prove illusory.

Miss Rice will soon take the reins of a massive 47,000-person operation that is literally sprawled out across the world. It is an insular institution that operates in a remarkably similar way from one administration to the next, typically viewing presidents, as one Foreign Service officer puts it, as the “summer help.”

Never has this been more apparent than during the past four years.

After Mr. Bush gave his “axis of evil” speech, U.S. embassy employees in Paris and elsewhere fanned out to assure nervous Europeans that the president didn’t mean “axis” and he didn’t mean “evil.”

When the rest of the Bush administration was following the president’s post-September 11 leadership by doing everything possible to thwart terrorism, the State Department was busy keeping open a program known as Visa Express, which allowed every resident in the country that sent us 15 of 19 terrorists — Saudi Arabia — to apply for visas at travel agencies.

And anyone who opens a newspaper knows that “anonymous” State Department officials routinely trash the president and his foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. No one from this State Department has received so much as a slap on the wrist for such rampant insubordination.

How did the Foreign Service operate in open opposition to the president, particularly with a loyal soldier like Colin Powell at the helm?

Rather than reforming the State Department and its conformist culture, Mr. Powell saw his role as one of tireless advocate for the Foreign Service and its positions, never putting quite the same energy into getting his subordinates to support the president as he himself did.

But the State Department’s rabid distaste for bold new ideas long precedes Mr. Powell, as does its worshiping at the altar of “stability,” the doctrine that the world is safest when left unchanged.

The irony is that “stability” also defines the composition of the State Department, because outside of a small number of political appointees, almost all substantive positions must be held by careerists who have no particular loyalty to any president — least of all this one.

The secretary of state is in many ways a glorified cat herder. All hiring, firing, transferring and promoting is handled not by the secretary, but by panels comprised of members of the Foreign Service. The secretary of state isn’t even able to fire a convicted felon — including when that felony is for defrauding the State Department.

The most effective secretary of state in recent memory, both in terms of motivating the rank and file and getting them to support a president’s agenda they otherwise wouldn’t, was George Shultz. He had three meetings every morning before 9:30, including at least one with non-executives. Yet though he was loved at State, he was only somewhat effective in getting his department on board with President Reagan.

While many have complained that Miss Rice was not an effective manager at the National Security Council — with most critics pointing to the raging interagency debates — there is one aspect of her record that is perhaps more troubling: The makeup of her NSC staff.

Though she often sided with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, her NSC is largely comprised of career members of the Foreign Service and the CIA and foreign policy elites whose worldview could not be more starkly different than the president’s.

She needs to reverse that trend if she hopes to change her new agency, because reliance on careerists was Mr. Powell’s greatest failure.

Mr. Powell trusted his foot soldiers and consequently ushered in an era of Foreign Service dominance over most key leadership posts — spots normally reserved for political appointments. Given that the Foreign Service already controlled 99 percent of substantive positions, there has been little internal dissent, or even discussion.

“Powell let the Foreign Service run the place, and the White House won’t let that happen again,” notes an administration official, who adds that there will almost certainly be a sharp increase in appointments of people more supportive of the president’s worldview.

Miss Rice could be a solid secretary of state, but the obstacles in her path are substantial — and her track record is not entirely encouraging. But at least she meets the first requirement: She knows her job is to serve the president, not the bureaucracy.

Joel Mowbray writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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