State, Defense clashes not new to Washington

Feuds: Given the two departments' differing methods and goals, it's a wonder they don't war with each other more often.

April 25, 2004|By Jim Anderson | Jim Anderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Colin L. Powell is not the first secretary of State to find himself in a virtual war with the Pentagon. It's an honored Washington tradition for the heads of the departments of State and Defense to be on opposite sides of an issue. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are maintaining that custom.

The wonder is that there is not more of this functional disagreement. Although both departments are part of the national security system, they require different training, different methods and different goals. But why are they not always at war with each other? The answer seems to lie at the head of government. It's like keeping peace in a kindergarten: Strong presidents and strong teachers don't tolerate or encourage misbehavior. Less strong teachers and leaders who aren't paying attention or maybe even try to encourage competition find themselves faced with behavior problems.

The current feuding across the Potomac concerns Iraq. But the division is deeper and older than that, going back to a philosophical quarrel that dates from the height of the Cold War.

Democratic Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington was a brilliant, dynamic politician with presidential ambitions who believed that the United States had to maintain a strategic superiority - not equality - in relations with the Soviet Union. Thus he opposed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and went on to oppose any feasible arms agreement with the Soviets. Before he died of a heart attack in 1983, he recruited a number of bright young men. This included his chief of staff, Richard N. Perle, who later became an assistant secretary of Defense and is one of the leading "neocons" who led the drive to invade Iraq.

Perle and other neocons such as Kenneth L. Adelman, a former head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, fought the State Department on almost every arms reduction agreement with the Soviets. They later joined on the need to attack Iraq.

After George W. Bush was elected, they and the other Jacksonian neocons fit right in with Vice President Dick Cheney who was secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush. Cheney had carried on the State-Defense feuding tradition in 1989 with a statement on CNN, just as Secretary of State James A. Baker III went to Moscow for an important negotiating session on arms control, declaring that Soviet President Michael S. Gorbachev would "ultimately fail."

Baker was furious. He got the White House to slap Cheney down. Baker later wrote, "I didn't want a precedent set for the Secretary of Defense to feel free to make uncleared public pronouncements on major foreign policy issues. ... The Secretary of State must be the President's principal adviser and spokesman on U.S. foreign policy."

That rule no longer applies. Rumsfeld, among others in the administration, freely talks about what U.S. foreign policy goals must be. So does Colin Powell, but his voice is only one among others.

In the past, some of the State Department's struggles have involved not only the Pentagon but also the national security adviser. Many of those have been lost by the State Department, whose officers are generally unfit and untrained for such combat. A few exceptions such as the late Ambassador Philip C. Habib and former Undersecretary Joseph J. Sisco stand out as heroes in the battles against the Pentagon.

Kissinger headlock

The most notable wars involving the State Department were during the Nixon administration when Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser, got a headlock on the bureaucratic system by controlling all communications (including wiretaps). He essentially eclipsed the hapless William Rogers at the State Department. When Kissinger took over at the State Department in Rogers' place in 1973, the Pentagon accepted reality and behaved obediently.

During the 1973 Middle East war, Kissinger acted as de-facto Secretary of Defense as well as Secretary of State and NSC director under Nixon, getting weapons to Israel but only after Israel had agreed to his terms on pulling back from positions in Egyptian territory. Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger, ordinarily abrasive and assertive, stood up and saluted.

Perhaps the nastiest competition in recent times took place during the Carter administration, and it involved the NSC, which was standing in for the Pentagon. Cyrus R. Vance at the State Department and NSC Director Zbigniew K. Brzezinski in the White House were polar opposites and natural enemies. Vance was a tweedy Eastern-establishment lawyer, and Brzezinski an Eastern European immigrant academic. They also had differing views on how to deal with opponents such as the Soviet Union and Iran.

Brzezinski was in the White House getting the president's full attention, and Vance wasn't. The hostage crisis in Iran was becoming a major issue in the coming presidential election campaign.

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