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Diplomats on the Defensive

State Dept. loyalists say the Pentagon is usurping foreign policy and undermining Powell. Conservatives say 9/11 has changed the rules.

May 08, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Diplomats are paid to have cool minds and even cooler temperaments, but inside the State Department, plenty of America's elite diplomats are privately seething.

They are up in arms over what they see as the hijacking of foreign policymaking by the Pentagon and efforts to undercut their boss, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

"I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, 'There's been a military coup,' and then it all makes sense," said one veteran foreign service officer.

The first two years of the Bush administration have seen what the diplomat called a "tectonic shift" of decision-making power on foreign policy from State to the Defense Department, one that has seen the Pentagon become the dominant player on such key issues as Iraq, North Korea and Afghanistan.

"Why aren't eyebrows raised all over the United States that the secretary of Defense is pontificating about Syria?" the official, who declined to be identified, said, fuming.

"Can you imagine the Defense secretary after World War II telling the world how he was going to run Europe?" he added, noting it was Secretary of State George C. Marshall who delivered that seminal speech in 1947.

Leading conservatives and Pentagon officials say such comments show the State Department's failure to grasp how profoundly global politics and U.S. foreign policy interests have been redefined, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

President Bush's national security strategy calls for a forward-leaning, muscular foreign policy to prevent terrorists and "rogue" states from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction and to confront such threats, by military force if necessary, before they reach American shores.

"Anyone who thinks that you can conveniently separate foreign policy, diplomacy, national security and war-fighting is clueless about the realities of global affairs, power politics and modern" war, a senior Pentagon official said.

Neoconservatives argue that the Pentagon is ascendant because it has better internalized the president's worldview. The State Department, they say, has not succeeded in its main task of explaining U.S. policy to the world and winning support for it.

Pentagon officials stressed that they are cooperating with State, but the military's swift victories in Afghanistan and Iraq have boosted its stature. "When there is a track record of success, that tends to earn a heavier and heavier workload," the senior Pentagon official said.

In public, Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have friendly relations, and their policy differences are cordial, if hard-argued. In private, Powell is said to roll his eyes at the volume of "Rummygrams" routinely sent his way that offer the Defense secretary's views on foreign policy.

However, at the day-to-day working level, mid-level State Department bureaucrats say they are alarmed by the ideological fervor of the Pentagon's civilian decision-makers and by how they leave State out of important decisions, brush aside the diplomats to get things done, or ignore tasks they do not want to perform.

After months of bitter battle over who should run postwar Iraq, the two departments finally agreed on L. Paul Bremer III, who was appointed Tuesday by Bush to be the top civilian administrator.

But in the larger ideological struggle, there is no compromise in sight.

Diplomats interviewed for this story -- all of whom insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the political infighting -- said they are profoundly worried about what they describe as the administration's arrogance or indifference to world public opinion, which they fear has wiped out, in less than two years, decades of effort to build goodwill toward the United States.

They cite as an example fallout from Iran being included in Bush's "axis of evil." Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, the State Department had been ordered to try to befriend Iranian moderates in order to counter that nation's Islamic fundamentalists. During the war in Afghanistan, American diplomats persuaded Tehran to allow U.S. military jets to fly over Iranian territory, a surprise foreign policy success.

However, within hours of Bush's State of the Union speech last year linking Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil," Tehran canceled U.S. overflight rights, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations.

"It has taken them an incredibly short time" to anger many other nations, said one veteran senior diplomat.

A mid-level official complained that intemperate remarks by administration hawks have damaged long-term American interests. "Goodwill is an element of national security -- and perhaps one of the most profound elements of national security," he said.

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