What can account for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's recent assault on the State Department? Gingrich, just eight years ago Time magazine's Man of the Year, these days largely reduced to self-promotion (Check his Web site at newt.org.), is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C. It was there, on April 22, that he unleashed his savage attack.
The State Department is, Gingrich said, "ineffective and incoherent," and "pathetic." Its "pattern of diplomatic failure is beginning once again and threatens to undo the effects of military victory." He went on to call on President Bush to "transform" the "broken" State Department.
Washington is all aglow these days, the great wave of military victory swallowing up the ripple of concern regarding Iraq's future. And suddenly, here's Gingrich, spoiling the celebration. Why?
Gingrich is a member of the Defense Policy Board, the special panel of civilian advisers to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that was, until a few weeks and one or two burgeoning scandals ago, chaired by Richard Perle (a senior scholar at AEI). The barely concealed story here is less Gingrich vs. State than it is Rumsfeld vs. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
So far, no big surprise: Rivalry, even bitter rivalry, between State and Defense is so common as to be unremarkable, and surrogates are often the mouthpieces through whom the arguments are carried on.
But there's more here, I fear, than meets the eye. This we learn from an examination of the substantive indictments included in the Gingrich speech. There are four of these, but the one that likely matters most and answers the "why now" question is the second, in which Gingrich accuses State of having "invented" the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) that is responsible for the development of the much-discussed and little-understood "road map."
Now, no one can yet say with any confidence whether the president is genuinely intent on re-engaging with the moribund Israel-Palestinian peace process. If he is, then all indications are that Powell will draw the leadership assignment, and the "road map" will be his starting place.
Everyone understands that if Powell is to succeed in reviving the peace process, he will have to lean not only on the Palestinians but also on the Israelis.
Among other obligations, the Palestinians will be required -- so reads the "road map" -- to arrest terrorists, destroy their infrastructure, confiscate all illegal weapons and consolidate the Palestinian security forces into one accountable entity. The Israelis will have to dismantle all settlements created since March 2001 and halt all settlement expansion, including expansion to accommodate "natural growth."
The "road map" is, to put it charitably, an imperfect document. Odds are that the two sides will yet again spend vast energies arguing just what its words mean.
Each is deeply suspicious of the other's commitment to a peaceful and honorable solution, and the "road map," for all its detail, may well not be adequate to rebuild the trust required to go forward. But Bush, as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have left no wiggle room in their endorsement of it, and it is, just now, the only plausible starting place for those who seek a two-state solution.
For many weeks, there's been a campaign to subvert the "road map" -- meaning, in context, to subvert the prospect of resuming the peace process. Since the president is on record as endorsing it, the subversion has taken for the form of end runs, rather than direct attacks.
Encouraged by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, many members of Congress have signed onto letters opposing any role for the Quartet and insisting that the Palestinians must fulfill all their obligations in the security realm before the Israelis are called upon to act.
Notwithstanding the fact that the "road map" is plainly "front-loaded," demanding much more of the Palestinians than of the Israelis in its early phases, the Palestinians have indicated their acceptance of it while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has interposed 14 specific objections.
Sharon is hardly alone: The "jurus"(Jewish gurus) of this administration -- Paul Wolfowitz, Perle, William Kristol and others -- along with Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld (who not long ago referred to the West Bank as "so-called occupied territories") oppose this and presumably any reasonable alternative "road map."
The heavies of AEI oppose it. And now, Gingrich, whose Web site tell us he is "recognized worldwide as an expert on world history, military issues and international affairs," seeks to cut off Powell's legs. One need not be a fan of Powell nor even of the "road map" per se to see how these ominous dots are connected.
Nor, in the current context, is opposition to the role of the Quartet a contribution to peace. The United States can no longer expect to be taken seriously as an "honest broker" between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
America has tilted so heavily toward Israel these last two and a half years that if it is to play the preeminent role it is assigned in the "road map," it must either visibly tilt in the opposite direction -- a political and, one hopes, a moral impossibility -- or the Europeans and the United Nations, who plainly favor the Palestinians, must be involved.
Messy, to be sure, but for now, that is what there is. Unless, of course, Gingrich and the others succeed, and we are left with nothing -- except the misery that has become so familiar.
Leonard Fein's most recent book is "Against the Dying of the Light: A Father's Story of Love, Loss, and Hope" (Jewish Lights, 2001).