Former Secretary of State Colin Powell says many in Washington -- his fellow Republicans in particular -- are biased against diplomats, because of a wrong perception that diplomats are indecisive and want to compromise at all cost.
"There is always a bias in Washington against the State Department, and when you have a very conservative Republican administration, it's worse," he says in my new book, "America's Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy." "The perception is that diplomats are bad -- they want to talk people into things, while soldiers fight or get ready to fight."
For years, some prominent Republicans have accused diplomats of being more interested in appeasing foreign governments than defending U.S. interests. With a Republican administration in office at the time, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine in 2004 that the Foreign Service was "out of sync" with President George W. Bush's policies and was deliberately undermining them. "We can no longer accept a culture that props up dictators, coddles the corrupt and ignores secret police forces," Gingrich wrote in an article with the title "Rogue State Department," and a sidebar "Foreign Disservice."
Another conservative, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, said around the same time, "Maybe we need a very small nuke thrown off on Foggy Bottom to shake things up like Newt Gingrich wants to do." Gingrich's statements were interpreted by some in Washington as a personal attack against Powell for his perceived lack of enthusiasm for the Iraq war. Still, the broader accusations stood on their own, Powell says.
The negative perception of diplomats was evident as recently as the 2012 Republican primaries, when then-candidate Rick Perry, the Texas governor, expressed doubt that "the State Department serves us well." In a Fox News interview, he said, "I'm talking about the career diplomats and the secretary of state, who all too often may not be making decisions or giving advice to the administration that's in this country's best interest."
In reality, the State Department does not have a foreign policy -- it carries out the president's policy, no matter who he or she is, and to which party he or she belongs, U.S. diplomats say. If the department "propped up dictators," as Gingrich claimed, it did it because that was what the president at the time wanted.
Six former secretaries of state from both parties and six former Republican political ambassadors agree, with James Baker, who served in the George H.W. Bush administration, calling suggestions to the contrary "patronizing" and an "insult" to the president. "He is not going to sit there and let the State Department undermine his agenda," Baker says.
Howard Baker, a former ambassador to Japan, disagrees with Gingrich "emphatically," saying that "the Foreign Service is loyal and dedicated and serves the president well." George Herbert Walker III, a former political ambassador to Hungary and first cousin of President George H. W. Bush, says the Foreign Service officers who worked for him were "team-players" and "very serious" about their jobs. "Everything I've asked for all of a sudden has appeared -- it's amazing," Walker says.