The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Defense Department appear to differ on a broad range of issues from postwar Iraq to North Korea to the Middle East peace process. By and large, Defense takes a more hard-line, military approach, while State emphasizes negotiation and multilateral cooperation. This has led to some vigorous debate in the United States and some perplexity abroad. Foreign observers often say they are confronted with two sets of U.S. policies.
A recent speech by a former U.S. Congressman pointed out the policy division in Washington. Retired representative Newt Gingrich called the State Department a broken instrument of diplomacy intent on undermining President Bush’s policies. He said six months of diplomatic failure with Iraq were followed by one month of military success. State, he insisted, is no match for Defense.
President Bush and his supporters were quick to disassociate themselves from this attack on the administration, but Mr. Gingrich is considered to speak for the so-called neo-conservative civilian leadership in the Defense Department, who have certainly not refuted him.
This antagonism has been building, says Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“It has been an open secret for the last several years that there were significant disagreements between the Department of State and the Department of Defense, not only on military policy but on some broader elements of U.S. diplomacy. And some of those fissures have intensified prior to the war with Iraq but also in the immediate aftermath of the war with Iraq.”
Professor Walt says the intensity of the debate is unusual along with the tendency to make it public. Occasionally, it becomes quite vituperative. He notes the debate was not so much over the war with Iraq as with its aftermath a period of perhaps years of U.S. involvement.
“So in that sense, the State Department’s view is that this should really be done multilaterally and the United States, no matter how strong it is, should remain mindful of the views of other countries,” he says. “One sign that supports them is, of course, that even though the United States has had a number of military victories over some pretty weak countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, that has been accompanied by a steady deterioration in American popularity worldwide, which is precisely what the State Department is worried about.”
The State Department should worry more about presidential policies, says Clifford May, who heads the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. State’s primary mission is to carry out those policies.
“I understand the State Department is the kind of institution that goes around the world trying to win friends and influence people. And when the United States takes positions under President Bush that vary from what we have seen in the past, that is going to ruffle feathers and make it harder for the State Department to operate,” he says. “But the question is not what makes it easier for the State Department to operate. The question is what promotes the policies of this President in the world today, and I think that is what the people in the State Department were hired to do.”
Mr. May says the State Department needs to catch up with the Defense Department, which in his opinion has been dramatically transformed, as demonstrated by the Iraq war. He concedes some of this success was technological and perhaps not applicable to the State Department. Still, it points up the kind of changes that are needed.
“I think what Mr. Gingrich was saying and what others are suggesting is that the State Department needs to take a hard look at itself and see if it has changed as much as it should to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century or to see whether it is still operating very much as it would have ten years ago, twenty years ago or thirty years ago.”
Mr. May says the State Department needs to improve its communications techniques to build support for U.S. policies overseas.
But let’s not take all these policies for granted cautions Professor Walt. Some remain in dispute and subject to presidential approval. In his opinion, they reflect the views of neo-conservatives in the Pentagon who want to assert American power on a unilateral basis without much regard for U.S. allies or the United Nations.
“This is really a period where they want to take the advantages that they see the United States possessing and run just about as far and as fast as they possibly can. And that has not made them particularly bashful about pushing a rather aggressive foreign policy but also running roughshod over domestic opponents. They see the State Department with its greater concern for world opinion, greater concern for legitimacy as something of an obstacle, and the debate is really over which vision of America’s position in the world is the right one,” Professor Walt says.
This debate is not as acrimonious as it may appear, says John Hulsman, an analyst of national security and European affairs at Washington’s Heritage Foundation. Disagreements give the President a range of opinions and policy options. This has happened before in U.S. history.
“I think the Bush Administration is actually working out to be much more like the administration of Franklin Roosevelt - a name you do not associate with President Bush - than almost any other,” he says. “And by that I mean Roosevelt encouraged different opinions, different world views all the way up through the chain so that when he had to make a decision, he had more than one color on his decision-making palette.”
The President who demands unanimity from his advisers soon gets into trouble, says Mr. Hulsman, and U.S. history has examples of that. Controversy is to be expected from strong-minded people. In fact, he thinks the current feuding cabinet members, mainly Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, get along pretty well.
“I have heard nothing and seen nothing to lead me to believe that Rumsfeld and Powell personally dislike each other in any way,” Mr. Hulsman says. “They just have different views, and as long as it is kept in a very businesslike way, this creative tension is a good thing and not a bad thing.”
Amid the clash of viewpoints, it is generally agreed that Defense and its neo-conservative leadership have the upper hand. A victorious war that they urged has given them a boost over Secretary of State Powell.
But that may not last, says Professor Walt.
“Given that there does not seem to be a prospect of a new military conflict any time soon, this is now a period where he may in fact have somewhat greater influence, and there is a lot of repair work to be done on the diplomatic front,” he says. “The administration has promised that it will finally at long last turn its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and again that is primarily a political or diplomatic one rather than one with a purely military solution.”
John Hulsman of Heritage agrees that like it or not, the Secretary of State is going to have to deal with the diplomatic consequences of the Iraq war as well as with the North Korean threat, which does not seem open to a military solution. So he and others expect the Defense-State conflict to continue with its ups and downs, its benefits and its drawbacks.