WASHINGTON – State and Defense Department bickering over who should direct U.S. foreign policy, particularly the Iraq reconstruction effort, has one former lawmaker demanding the diplomatic corps get a major overhaul.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (more news | Web) on Tuesday slammed the State Department and by association, its secretary, Colin Powell (more news | Web), saying that failed diplomacy led the nation into war.
"The last seven months have involved six months of diplomatic failure and one month of military success. The first days after military victory indicate the pattern of diplomatic failure is beginning once again and threatens to undo the effects of military victory," Gingrich told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Much of Gingrich's rhetoric was aimed at the Near East Bureau of the State Department. Among the complaints, Gingrich blasted Powell for planning a trip to Syria, working with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations on a Middle East peace road map, and focusing on prewar weapons inspections rather than regime change.
Gingrich said approving Hans Blix as chief U.N. weapons inspector was a mistake made "even though he was clearly opposed to war and determined to buy time and find excuses for Saddam Hussein."
Gingrich spared no criticism over Powell's planned trip to Syria, saying that the secretary going to meet "with a terrorist-supporting, secret police-wielding dictator is ludicrous."
"The current Syrian dictatorship" openly hosts seven terrorist offices in downtown Damascus, is developing chemical weapons of mass destruction and occupying Lebanon and transmitting weapons to Hezbollah guerrillas for attacks against Israel, the former legislator from Georgia said.
Currently an AEI fellow as well as a Fox News contributor, Gingrich said that U.S. diplomacy was leading the United States into a weakened future position.
"Without bold, dramatic change at the State Department, the United States will soon find itself on the defensive everywhere except militarily," Gingrich said. "In the long run, that is a very dangerous position for the world's leading democracy to be in."
At his regular briefing Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the diplomatic efforts at the United Nations an important process that paved the way for the military action. Fleischer added that Powell was merely following President Bush's orders.
"This is a process that the president decided on in his speech to the United Nations in September, and the fact of the matter is the State Department and Secretary Powell did an excellent job at ushering through that process," Fleischer said.
Behind the scenes, a senior administration official called Gingrich's comments out of line.
"Newt stepped in it. He served the country very well when he was happily retired," the official said. Gingrich left the House in 1998, giving up the seat he had held for 10 years. He quit after Republicans lost five House seats in midterm elections that year and after apologizing for violating House rules on the use of tax-exempt funds.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he didn't know why Gingrich was taking aim at the State Department but he was ready to battle the former congressman's claims.
"The State Department is here to carry out the president's policy, and we are doing that diligently," Boucher said, pointing to President Bush's endorsement over the weekend of the way Powell was dealing with Syria and how diplomacy had forced Syria to improve its behavior.
Gingrich also took aim at the State Department's Agency for International Development and what he called its "bungled" reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.
Boucher outlined several projects in Afghanistan and said the building of roads is "proceeding well" and that "a lot is being done" for the people there.
Boucher also rejected Gingrich's call for the department to face more congressional oversight.
"There's no lack of congressional oversight, there's no lack of coordination with the Congress. And the secretary has worked very closely with members of Congress, as has [Deputy Secretary] Mr. Armitage."
But Weekly Standard publisher and Fox News analyst William Kristol said that Gingrich is right about two things — a feud between the State and Defense departments is growing and the State Department is in need of an overhaul.
"People in the administration who don't want some criticism are going to say Newt Gingrich stepped in it, but the truth is he told the truth. And [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld has tried to reform the Defense Department. He's broken a lot of china, he has got a lot of enemies as a result. Colin Powell, who is an impressive man, has not rocked the boat at all at State, and I think that's a mistake. State needs to be reformed," Kristol said.
Fox News' Caroline Shively and Teri Schultz contributed to this report.