WASHINGTON – Senior career diplomats are retaking control of key elements of U.S. foreign policy and have begun to assert significant influence as the Bush administration enters its waning months eager to salvage a legacy marred by the Iraq war.
Since assuming the helm at the State Department in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has installed veteran foreign service officers with more than 200 years of collective diplomatic experience in seven critical posts from the Middle East to South Asia and the Far East.
By contrast, their immediate predecessors had just 72 years of combined experience and five of them were Republican political operatives with limited or no background in diplomacy, according to an Associated Press survey of senior agency appointees.
While the departure of prominent conservative hawks, including Donald H. Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz from the Pentagon and John Bolton from the State Department, is well-documented, the quiet climb to influence of Rice's choices for top jobs has been less public even as they have started to steer new courses.
As the administration winds down, Rice, who has been President Bush's top foreign policy adviser since the 2000 campaign, has entrusted them with the hands-on, day-to-day running of U.S. diplomacy in the most volatile regions and nations of the world:
— Afghanistan: Where Taliban insurgents and Al Qaeda militants continue to pose a threat while the country is on track for yet another record opium poppy harvest.
— Iraq: Where judgments on the president's so-called "surge" strategy are due next month.
— Iran: Which has increasingly vexed Washington with its alleged support for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, its nuclear program and backing for militant anti-Israeli groups.
— North Korea: Which is now moving toward shelving its nuclear weapons programs.
— Pakistan: Where Al Qaeda has regrouped in lawless border areas and embattled President Pervez Musharraf is facing domestic political upheaval ahead of elections.
Among those wielding increasing power are Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who entered the foreign service in 1960, and Nicholas Burns, the third highest-ranking diplomat as undersecretary of state for political affairs and a foreign service officer for 24 years.
Others include the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, a 36-year foreign service veteran; the Washington-based Iraq coordinator David Satterfield, with 27 years under his belt; and 30-year diplomat David Welch, who is the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
Further afield, Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific who holds the North Korea portfolio, joined the foreign service in 1977 as did Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asia, which covers nuclear-armed foes Pakistan and India along with Afghanistan.
With a career spanning four decades and four continents, Negroponte has served as an ambassador multiple times, including in Iraq and as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. He was also briefly the director of national intelligence.
Burns, a former State Department spokesman and ambassador to NATO, took over from career diplomat Marc Grossman. He has assumed a much more influential position than his low-key predecessor, charting the course for a peaceful solution to the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions and its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan
Burns is a primary player in negotiations with Israel over a $30 billion, 10-year boost in U.S. military aid and with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for massive new arms deals designed to help them counter growing Iranian assertiveness in the region. In addition he led recent talks that cemented a major civilian nuclear deal with India.
On Iraq, Crocker, along with the top U.S. general in Iraq, David Petraeus, will be critical in determining the administration's course with a joint report on progress due next month. A war skeptic in the first Bush administration, Crocker is seen by many both inside and outside government as an honest assessor who will not sugar coat his findings.
In Baghdad, he replaced Zalmay Khalilzad, a journeyman political appointee in numerous Republican administrations and Bush's first ambassador to Afghanistan who is now at the United Nations although he is not a foreign service officer.
Satterfield and Welch both replaced veteran diplomats — James Jeffrey, now at the National Security Council, and William Burns, now ambassador to Russia — but have seen the stature of their portfolios rise as Rice focuses on Iraq in particular and the Middle East in general.
Welch will be in Libya this week to lay the groundwork for a visit by Rice to the former pariah state that could take place in October.
The changes have perhaps been most dramatic in Asia, where Hill and Boucher have taken over areas that cover virtually the entire continent from Kazakhstan to Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The pair were the only two assistant secretaries of state to be invited to Camp David earlier this month to participate in a long-range policy strategy session with Bush.
In East Asia, Hill replaced James Kelly, an academic and Hawaii-based business consultant who served in the Reagan-era NSC and Pentagon and during whose term North Korea expanded its nuclear weapons development.
On Hill's watch, thus far, North Korea has come back to the negotiating table and shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facility. Talks on normalizing relations between the United States and North Korea are due to begin soon.
In South Asia, Boucher, another former State Department spokesman, replaced Christina Rocca, a former CIA officer who had been a foreign policy adviser to Republican Sen. Sam Brownback.
Boucher has toed a delicate line, particularly in Pakistan, where Musharraf, a critical U.S. ally in the war on terrorism is beset by internal political problems.
A proponent of Musharraf sharing power with his political foes, Boucher returned from the country over the weekend after following up on a late-night Rice call to the president that likely dissuaded him from declaring a state of emergency two weeks ago.