One of Newt Gingrich’s many peculiar fixations stands out as especially troublesome: his hatred of the State Department. Gingrich has recently been attacking career civil servants there in hostile terms, complaining that they are “Arabists” who advocate “appeasement” of America’s enemies.
At the Republican Jewish Coalition candidate forum on Wednesday in Washington, Gingrich got more specific. He pledged to nominate the famously nationalist, hawkish former UN Ambassador John Bolton to be his Secretary of State, but only if Bolton pledges to radically overhaul the department. Here’s what Gingrich said:
If he will accept it, I will ask John Bolton to be Secretary of State. But I will only appoint him if he will agree that his first job is the complete and thorough transformation of the State Department and the replacement of the current Foreign Service culture with a new entrepreneurial and aggressive culture dedicated to the proposition that defending freedom and defending America is the first business of the State Department, not appeasing opponents.
Why does Gingrich harbor such strange antipathy for the nonpartisan, apolitical analysts in Foggy Bottom?
It is an often overlooked aspect of Gingrich’s history that he was a leading advocate of the disastrous Iraq War. In April 2003 he delivered at broadside against the State Department at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. (USA Today described Gingrich at the time as “a close associate of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board.”) The State Department produced honest intelligence assessments in the run-up to the invasion, rather than the politicized fear mongering about imaginary weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda that the Bush-Cheney White House wanted. Secretary of State Colin Powell was also more cautious about invading Iraq than his colleagues in the White House and Defense Department.
In June 2003 Gingrich wrote an article for Foreign Policy that scathingly attacked the State Department for failing to back the Iraq invasion. FP’s Josh Keating recounts that Gingrich’s piece “accused the department of undermining the Bush administration’s foreign policy and argues that it needs to ‘experience culture shock, a top-to-bottom transformation that will make it a more effective communicator of U.S. values around the world.’ ” As Keating notes, “Published just weeks after Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, the piece feels a like a bit of a relic of the short-lived triumphalism of the early Iraq war.” Gingrich’s recent statements suggest he has not rethought his discredited worldview.
The ideological roots of Gingrich’s views go back quite a bit farther than 2003. “It’s a critique we’ve heard periodically from the right since the McCarthy witch hunts,” says Jeffrey Laurenti an expert on international affairs at the Century Foundation. “They want to ensure that only people loyal to supposed ‘Americanist’ values work in the State Department and that it should not be contaminated by understanding the way others think.”
When implemented, these ideological purges have damaged the effectiveness of the State Department and American foreign policy. “It blinded American policymakers to what was happening in China [in the late 1940s and early 1950s],” says Laurenti. According to Laurenti, John Foster Dulles chased out the analysts who best understood the civil war that was going on China because their correct analysis, that the communists would win, was not what politicians wanted to hear. Some would argue that the resulting chilling effect on the way civil servants approached their job had terrible reverberations in years to come, possibly causing Washington to misunderstand the situation in Vietnam in the 1960s by believing that Hanoi was a puppet of Beijing. “This is a formula for blinding America’s leadership to what is happening on the outside,” says Laurenti. “When the State Department has been cowed by the political class in Washington to not report what it sees, we’ve had catastrophic failures: not just China in ‘49, but Iran in ’78–’79.”
As for Gingrich’s suggestion of Bolton for Secretary of State, it is met with derision and horror from foreign policy experts and State Department veterans. “[Gingrich] wants to take the country back on foreign policy that even George W. Bush had some sense to reject towards the end of his second term in office,” says Brian Katulis, an expert on national security at the Center for American Progress. “Trumpeting John Bolton as a diplomatic brand worth selling is kind of like the Ford Motor Company trying to revive the Pinto.”
“Putting John Bolton in charge of the State Department would be like making Aman al-Zawahiri commandant of the Marine Corps,” says Lawrence Wilkerson, retired United States Army Colonel and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. “Such statements as Gingrich’s make it clear that my party, the Republicans, are in deep trouble.”
But Bolton would be the perfect candidate to carry out Gingrich’s proposed purge. He has already tried to do so in his previous tours of duty in State. (Bolton was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs during Bush I and Under Secretary of State for arms control and international security during the first term of Bush II.) “Career people in the State Department who have served under [Bolton] just felt very strongly his involvement in trying to promote the most conservative and ideologically rigid Foreign Service officers and to ignore anyone providing information inconsistent with what he already believed,” says Laurenti.
So what would happen if Bolton were appointed Secretary and charged with carrying out Gingrich’s transformation of the State Department? Revolt, dysfunction, and ultimately probably an exodus of the best analysts and Foreign Service officers. “The notion that whatever you report in the field is going to be vetted by some ideological litmus test would be extremely demoralizing,” warns Laurenti. But Gingrich’s dream of an addendum to the Pentagon instead of a department of diplomacy would be fulfilled.
Bio: Ben Adler is an editor at The Nation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.