WASHINGTON – No other agency in Washington seems to have taken as many hits as the State Department (search) these days, but despite the swings the department appears to be standing tall.
Criticism of State has ranged from letting terrorists into the country to causing a diplomatic breakdown among the United States and its allies leading up to the war in Iraq. Angry diatribes from political pundits have even led to calls for a complete overhaul of the department's bureaucratic ranks.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute last month, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (search) accused the State Department of undermining President Bush's policies in Iraq, blaming it for "six months of diplomatic failure" and for the rise in the Middle East of forces more concerned with pleasing despots than transplanting democracy and peace in the region.
"America cannot lead the world with a broken instrument of diplomacy," Gingrich said, urging the House and Senate committees that deal with foreign relations to hold "exhaustive hearings" on whether to enact sweeping changes to the way the department conducts diplomacy. Gingrich also suggested that Bush commission a working group to focus on changes that may be warranted at the department.
"Without bold and dramatic change at the State Department, the United States will soon find itself on the defensive everywhere except militarily," Gingrich charged. "In the long run that is a very dangerous position."
Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) hasn't taken the hits lying down. He retorted that Gingrich may have been taking a swipe at the State Department but instead hit the president, and suggested that Gingrich may want to check his swing.
Republican lawmakers appear to agree with Powell. Though many complaints privately have been made that the State Department's huge bureaucracy has proven ineffectual and sometimes counterproductive in international diplomatic efforts, Capitol Hill aides say no one is talking about holding the kind of hearings that Gingrich had suggested.
"If there are grumblings at the member level, they are very isolated and many would keep that to themselves," said one Republican aide. "When the president stands behind Secretary Powell, Republicans stand behind Secretary Powell."
Christopher Preble, director of foreign studies at the Cato Institute, said he doesn't think arguments like the one Gingrich made will go anywhere.
"It’s a philosophical disagreement," Preble said of the Gingrich-Powell schism, adding that the debate over the State Department's efficacy "goes back for as long as there has been a State Department.
"I don’t think that even the State Department’s staunchest defenders would be opposed to making the agency more efficient." But, Preble added, "I don’t think that this administration, or any other for that matter, is very threatened by career civil servants and I think it’s entirely appropriate that people are offering differing points of view."
Longtime critics of the diplomatic corps, however, say now is an opportune time to clean house.
"What you have are people who are operating as a fourth branch of government," often in contrast to other branch's agendas, said Joel Mowbray, a columnist for National Review who last year exposed the agency’s "Visa Express" program that allowed three of the Sept. 11 hijackers into the country.
After Mowbray’s columns and congressional pressure, the Visa Express program — which allowed residents of Saudi Arabia, including non-Saudi citizens, to apply for non-immigrant visas at private travel agencies without scrutiny by U.S. officials — was shut down.
Mowbray said a long-standing, bureaucratic culture within the agency, one that is non-partisan and operates largely outside of policies set by each new administration, is to blame for the seeming ineffectiveness there.
"They have a different mindset. They don’t see the U.S. as a great force in the world. They are moral relativists and refuse to acknowledge evil when it's staring them in the face," Mowbray said of the diplomats whom he said have little love for the Bush administration despite Powell's popularity.
Preble said Powell has been a good trouper in the Bush administration, "bravely" deflecting criticism suggesting that he and the department have not been tough enough, choosing appeasement over aggression.
"He said, ‘If you want to call me a dove, call me a dove, but I’m not going to engage in this fight,’" said Preble. "He doesn’t have to get down into the gutter."