Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Walk the halls of the State Department’s main offices in Washington these days, and you’ll encounter an abundance of political cartoons — something you could not have found even three years ago. It’s not that the diplomats at Foggy Bottom have suddenly developed a sense of humor, but rather a newfound contempt for the leader of the free world. The cartoons overwhelmingly lampoon President Bush as a simpleton who doesn’t understand the “complexities” of the foreign policy.

Foreign Service sneering at a president is nothing new, of course, but such open disrespect for a commander-in-chief hasn’t existed since Foggy Bottom’s diplomats decried Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” But at least then-Secretary of State George Schultz was able to keep something of a handle on his lieutenants and foot soldiers. Colin Powell has not.

Consider an example with deep policy ramifications. On March 31, representatives of the North Korean government told State Department officials, for the first time, that they were reprocessing plutonium, a key step in developing nuclear weapons. The Pentagon and the White House did not learn of this stunning announcement until Pyongyang told them during previously scheduled talks with North Korea in China on April 18. The State Department intentionally withheld this vital piece of information, fearing that, if the White House knew, officials there might call off the meeting. The White House was reportedly furious about this deception, but it has done nothing concrete to make sure it doesn’t happen again. A White House official laments, “We always get really worked up, but then we don’t do anything.”

Part of the reason the State Department was able to shield critical information from the White House is that there are few Bush loyalists at Foggy Bottom. Karl Rove has the power to change that, although it won’t be easy fighting entrenched State Department interests. The director of policy planning, Richard Haass, is leaving for the Council on Foreign Relations next month, which gives Mr. Rove an immediate opportunity to insert someone loyal to the president in a key position. It is crucially important politically, as voters may punish Mr. Bush if the State Department’s actions have disastrous results before November 2004.

Mr. Rove must act quickly. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has already started the process of selecting the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Robert Pearson, as Mr. Haass’ replacement. Mr. Pearson is despised by Turkish government officials, so he needs to get out of there soon. But as a careerist who shares the State Department’s worldview, he is not the right person for the top policy post.

It is only one position, but it is the one that — at least supposedly — sets policies to match the president’s agenda. If Mr. Rove doesn’t assert his influence here, he might not ever do so — and then there will be lower odds of a second Bush term for State Department careerists to undermine.

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