The Jerusalem Post

UNDERSTANDING THE US STATE DEPARTMENT

by Bret Stephens

The other day, Richard Boucher, spokesman for the US Department of State, made one of those comments that has a way of sending people like me into fits. Addressing the subject of Wednesday's IDF raid on Palestinian banks to seize terrorist funds, the spokesman said: "Some of these actions that were taken risk destabilizing the Palestinian banking system. So we'd prefer to see Israeli coordination with the Palestinian financial authorities." Note the keywords: Risk. Destabilizing. Coordination. Authorities.

The first two, in StateThink, are bad. The second two, good. Never mind that the "Palestinian banking system" is a well-known repository of ill-gotten gains, that "Palestinian financial authorities" have consistently resisted every attempt to impose meaningful standards of transparency and accountability, that every attempt at Israeli-Palestinian "coordination" on security and financial issues has run aground on the shoals of Palestinian malfeasance, and that seizing terrorist funds -- in raids not unlike the ones conducted by the IDF -- is a mainstay of American policy.

Never mind, too, that only the other week the US ambassador to Israel scored the Palestinian Authority for doing nothing to stop terrorism or punish the men responsible for the October murder of three American officials travelling in the Gaza Strip. In the mind of the folks at State, anything that involves some kind of risk -- even someone else's risk -- is an intellectual no-gone zone. If these folks had had their way, Israel would never have come into being, Jerusalem would be corpus separatum, the Soviet Union would never have been dissolved, and North Korea would be a chief beneficiary of American foreign aid.

MAYBE I exaggerate. I know a fair number of State Department personnel. Mostly they are intelligent, dedicated, knowledgeable and worldly.

It was American diplomats, led by Richard Holbrooke, who insisted on action against Serbia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s while the Pentagon resisted.

It was American diplomacy (though not, in fact, the State Department itself) that opened China to the West. It was a US foreign serviceman, George Kennan, who furnished the conceptual framework that saw administrations from both parties through to victory in the Cold War.

Yet somehow the State Department manages to be something less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, it's a uniquely awkward institution. It is required to carry out the policies of an administration while also representing the US from one administration to the next.

Of course this is true of every executive department, but in no other department do policy shifts tend to be so radical and sudden. Career officers must be loyal to the policies of the president, but they must not actually be partisans of it.

A career diplomat who is too zealous in defending one set of policies may find himself in bad odor when some future administration seeks to advance the opposite set of policies.

Thus, while State Department officials usually hold strong views on the areas of their particular expertise, they tend to express them cautiously, careful not to stick their necks out by saying, "this is what I believe; either we do it or I resign." Their consolation is the chance to work the bureaucracy either to advance the policies they seek or soften the blow of the policies they oppose, while biding their time until the next administration.

The result, predictably, is a great deal of mush: "All the incentives," writes Henry Kissinger, "are skewed toward compromises reflecting the lowest common denominator and paralyzing the imagination." This is reflected in the language we so often hear coming from people like Boucher: "Both sides must meet their responsibilities," say, or "we need to get the peace process back on track."

Usually such boilerplate is benign but sometimes it can have real-world consequences. In the run-up to the Rwanda genocide 10 years ago, the State Department ignored mounting evidence of Hutu intentions, preferring instead to focus on salvaging the so-called Arusha peace process. "We were looking for the hopeful signs, not the dark signs," recalled then US ambassador David Rawson. "In fact, we were looking away from the dark signs."

The same, of course, went for the way the State Department handled the Mideast peace process during the Clinton years. In hindsight, Israelis and Palestinians agree that at least part of what wrecked the Oslo Accords was that the deal-breaking issues -- Jerusalem, refugees, final status -- were not addressed up front.

But that reflected an institutional tendency to see process itself, not resolution, as the important thing. Process, after all, is what keeps parties to a conflict at the table -- and it's what keeps diplomats busy. The difference is that diplomats never tire of talking, while the contending parties often do.

Of course, a belief in the talking cure is as natural to the State Departmet as an ingrained belief in the occasional necessity of war is natural to the Defense Department.

The problem is that when disputes reach the point when mediation appears to be required, it's already too late for mediation, just as certain cancers are no longer operable by the time the symptoms become apparent.

In other words, mediation tends to work best when it is needed least. Yet the State Department generally operates on the opposite premise, which often leads it to engage in fruitless dialogues with people who are not really susceptible to persuasion.

In the 1990s, State Department officials spent countless hours trying to persuade Slobodan Milosevic to moderate his behavior. Sometimes the talk was gentle, sometimes tough. But for Milosevic, as for Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein, even tough talk was just talk. Only when NATO bombs started falling did the Serb find it expedient to moderate his ambitions.

Then too, the State Department is hobbled by the fact that, just as it must adapt itself to whatever president is in office, it must deal with what foreign governments there are. And because it cannot change its interlocutors, it usually tries to accommodate itself to them, a tendency that leads to a certain amount of rationalization and exculpation.

Here, for instance, is Theodore Kattouf, the former US ambassador to Syria, in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post:

"I would say when you are asking a country, even one whose policies might be quite misguided and inimical to your interests and those of your allies, you need at least try to understand the perspective of the other side's leadership and try to figure out what it is they need and want. To some degree, try to put an offer on the table that is enticing to them within your limits. I'm not sure we've done as well as we could have in that regard."

Here we have a fine example of what Polish essayist Czeslaw Milosz called, in a different context, "the captive mind." One would expect a former American ambassador to this particular regime to be rather more critical of it than he is sympathetic. Yet nowhere in his interview does Kattouf have anything harsh to say about what remains a totalitarian state. He does, however, imply a great deal of criticism of the current administration for its supposed lack of understanding of Bashar Assad's idiosyncratic ways of thinking. (Kattouf is no longer in government service.)

Finally, the State Department suffers from a certain poverty of imagination when it comes to the possibilities for sweeping political change. Perhaps it's because once a diplomat has gotten to know a certain interlocutor well enough, his departure -- however otherwise welcome -- means tediously starting anew. During the first Bush administration, it was obvious that there was some real personal chemistry between James Baker and Eduard Shevarnadze, one reason, perhaps, that the administration was somewhat sorry to see that regime go.

A DIPLOMAT from a certain East Asian democracy once told me the following story. When relations between Washington and his country's adversary were going well, the line from State was: "Don't rock the boat." And when relations were going poorly, the line was: "Don't stir the pot." Either way, it was a counsel of inaction.

The US State Department is often accused of being too liberal. Would that it were so. In fact, it is among the most conservative of all American institutions.

In a world of change and upheaval, it seeks stability, continuity and predictability. No doubt there's something to be said about this -- in most places, most of the time. But not here, which is a pity, because we really could use some imaginative US diplomacy.

bret@jpost.com