Eye of Newt

April 24, 2003

MUCH BUZZ in Washington this week over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's attack on the State Department.

Was he fronting for hawks at the Pentagon who fear Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will convince President Bush to go squishy on Syria just when saber-rattling was beginning to work? Or is he simply a washed-up blowhard looking for a way to weasel back into the limelight?

In either case, Mr. Gingrich struck a chord because he focused attention on a raging debate within the Bush administration over the most effective use of whatever postwar moment of power lingers from the conflict in Iraq.

His warning that it should not be squandered is well taken. Particularly in the case of Syria, which was greatly alarmed by the prospect that U.S. tanks might suddenly turn in its direction, there is an opportunity to demand important changes in behavior.

Syria has already made enough gestures, such as closing its borders to fleeing Iraqi thugs, to justify Mr. Powell's visit there next month. But this is a chance to achieve much more. To insist, for example, that Syria stop sponsoring and harboring terrorists, and that it stay out of efforts to make peace between Israel and Palestine.

Most would agree with Mr. Gingrich's broad condemnation of the Bush administration's diplomatic failures in the six months that preceded the war. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle was excoriated as disloyal for saying much the same thing just before the war began.

But whose fault is it? Not the State Department bureaucrats and foreign service officers, whom Mr. Gingrich condemns for their culture of "process, politeness and accommodation." Not Mr. Powell, whom Mr. Gingrich fingers by implication, because the United States couldn't muster U.N. support for the Iraq strike.

President Bush shapes the diplomatic policy of this administration. His words, his tone, his image. His intentions toward Iraq were so clear from the beginning that the bid to bring other nations along seemed a mere afterthought. No wonder few came. His unilateral approach to world problems is not conductive to building alliances.

The challenge now for Mr. Bush is to learn how to use America's military might as a tool of diplomacy rather than an alternative to it.

That, and to push Mr. Gingrich back down in his box.

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