Blaming the victim

Newt Gingrich came back from the political grave to say the State Department is broken. He should know. He helped break it.

Published May 1, 2003 6:08PM (EDT)

Newt Gingrich said recently that the State Department was "a broken instrument of foreign policy." He should know. He and the Congress he once led helped to break it.

During the 1990s, Congress put the State Department and the budget for international assistance on life support. While systematically voting to give the Pentagon more money than it requested, it shrank the State Department budget, between 1992 and 1997, by 22 percent, until Madeleine Albright stopped the hemorrhaging in her last years as secretary of state. Throughout the decade, the number of countries in the world was growing, ethnic conflict in the Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa was exploding, and terrorist attacks on American embassies and military bases were increasing. Under the circumstances, underfunding diplomacy looked like a dangerously contrarian response to world events. In retrospect, we know it to have been a misjudgment of historic proportions.

I worked in the Pentagon in the mid-1990s, and I can remember the stark contrasts between our fortunes and those of State. At the Defense Department, I worked on the latest Macintosh computers. At State they worked on Wangs. In the Pentagon, we could send secure e-mail across the Potomac River. At State, forget about it. The Pentagon had money for travel to international meetings and often headed U.S. delegations to far-flung locations because State didn't have the people or airfare to dispatch its own. My relatively small office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense had a research budget of several hundred thousand dollars -- more than the entire 7th floor of the State Department.

More significant than the day-to-day indignities was the effect that the congressional cuts had on the country's ability to project a positive image overseas. During the 1990s, as the budget for public diplomacy suffered, the U.S. amassed a debt to the United Nations that exceeded $1 billion. U.S. humanitarian assistance to prevent disease, promote private enterprise, and support democracy abroad shrunk to the lowest percentage of the GDP of any industrial nation.

It is true that the State Department was slow to adapt to the end of the Cold War, and a bevy of blue-ribbon panels suggested reforms, many of which have been implemented since. On Secretary Powell's watch, and especially since 9/11, things have continued to improve, with a modernized plant, better training and more money for State Department operations and critical foreign aid programs.

But there is still more to do. The public diplomacy function at State -- and throughout the U.S. government -- has not effectively countered rising anti-Americanism. Support for promoting democracy abroad remains halting and inconsistent, especially toward the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

Gingrich put the blame for these and many other shortcomings on the State Department's doorstep in his speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute. But his choice of villains is not altogether convincing. Take the Iraq example.

On Iraq, Gingrich said, "The last seven months have involved six months of diplomatic failure and one month of military success." Whose fault is that? In truth, the State Department pulled off some impressive victories, even as it was coping with naysayers at Defense and foot-dragging in the White House.

The decision to go to the United Nations for a resolution on Iraq before going to war was supported by Secretary Powell and opposed by the Defense Department and Vice President Dick Cheney. The infighting continued until the final moments before President Bush delivered his speech at the U.N. on Sept. 12, which challenged the Security Council to enforce its Iraq resolutions. The president's speech was followed by eight weeks of diplomacy that produced a 15-0 vote at the U.N., uniting Americans with Europeans, Africans and even Syria. This was a stunning diplomatic victory for Powell and Bush that exceeded the historic vote the president's father managed in advance of the first Gulf war.

And the dismal failure to get a second resolution, which was unnecessary in any case, had mostly to do with the lack of White House support. The Bush administration let Tony Blair take the lead, calling into question Washington's commitment, and making it that much harder to line up the necessary votes. Meanwhile, the Pentagon almost chased away America's staunchest British ally, when Secretary Rumsfeld said at a particularly low moment for the British prime minister that the United States didn't need any help to fight the war in Iraq.

Yes, Powell should have made that trip to Turkey in March to press the case for U.S. military access to bases that were critical to opening up a northern front against Saddam. But heavy-handed negotiating tactics by Pentagon officials in Ankara -- not to mention the inexperience of a new Turkish government -- were also part of the equation.

A decade of deep cuts to the State Department and a lack of respect for diplomacy -- both encouraged by Gingrich -- helped to create a diplomatic vacuum that impaired American security in the years after the Cold War. That was a historic mistake that we cannot afford to repeat in this dangerous and uncertain time. Encouragingly, a roster of Republican stalwarts rose to slap Gingrich, and defend Powell, after the former House speaker's controversial speech. Let's hope that represents the final repudiation of a dismissive, low-budget approach to diplomacy, at long last.

By Lee Feinstein

Lee Feinstein worked in the Pentagon from 1994-95, and at the State Department until 2001. He is senior fellow and deputy director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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