Iraq transition spells new State-Pentagon balance

A stronger US emphasis on a political approach to problems could pave the way for enlisting more help.

If Colin Powell were into revenge, this would be his moment.

After watching the Department of Defense take over ever-larger chunks of the nation's diplomatic portfolio, and then sparring with the Pentagon over Iraq, the secretary of State might be excused for deriving some satisfaction from the hot water Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is in over the Iraqi prisoner scandal.

Both the scandal and persistent problems in the reconstruction effort have some analysts suggesting an unforeseen impact from the Bush administration's early decision to rely on the Pentagon.

Such an inclination, however, is shifting. "The time of the diplomat is back," says John Hulsman, a foreign-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Yet as the State Department prepares to assume a higher profile in Iraq after the formal end of military occupation June 30, the vastness of the job still to be done and the slim prospects for quick improvement are dampening any urge to celebrate comeuppances or declare we-told-you-so, officials and experts close to the State Department say.

"At a different time, there might have been some sense of satisfaction, but the daunting task ahead means there's no sense of triumphalism at all," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and a former member of the State Department's policy-planning staff. "There's a lot of anger over inheriting such a difficult situation."

When the Coalition Provisional Authority ceases to exist and America's occupation governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer, heads home on July 1, they will be replaced by a US embassy - really a mega-embassy, with about 3,000 employees. It will be headed by John Negroponte, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who was recently confirmed by the Senate for the Iraq job.

And the nation's diplomatic apparatus will have a broader opportunity to take on reconstruction. A stronger emphasis on a political approach to problems - with the effort being headed by a diplomat well-connected to the international community - could pave the way for enlisting international support, some observers say.

"It's something of a fresh start," says Mark Helmke, senior staff member to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and aide to committee chairman Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana. "Negroponte has a chance to put a whole new face on the American operation."

The problems that Senator Lugar sees, Mr. Helmke says, "are the continuing doubts about whether we are going to be ready" with an interim Iraqi government and a plan for American interaction with that government.

With less than seven weeks remaining before the turnover and no clear plan in sight, Lugar is scheduled to hold hearings to press both State and Pentagon officials on transition plans. He also wants details on how the State Department plans to coordinate with the Pentagon since a large US military force will still be in the country.

Helmke says resentment over the conditions in which the new embassy will assume responsibilities will affect relations. "The problem State faces is that the Pentagon is going to drop all this dirty laundry in their lap," he says.

It's a view echoed by critics of the Pentagon's handling of postwar operations. "The way the Pentagon has so badly managed the last year, they're setting up the State Department to fail," says Joseph Wilson, the former US ambassador turned archcritic of the Bush war effort.

Some experts say the fact that Secretary Powell is untouched by postwar problems, including the prison scandal, means he should have an easier time convincing foreign partners to play a role in post-occupation Iraq. Heritage's Mr. Hulsman says, for example, that the way is opening for NATO to play a political role in Iraq.

But others say Powell, who took part over the weekend in a G-8 meeting in Washington and the World Economic Forum in Jordan, has lost much of his currency with foreign leaders. "There used to be a time when you'd hear people [in other countries] say, 'When Rumsfeld talks I get scared, and when Powell talks I feel relieved,' but you don't hear it any more," says CSIS's Mr. Alterman. Adding that Powell is now viewed as serving a president who "doesn't listen to him," He says, "[Powell] is seen as a friend, but not a very powerful friend."

Yet whether Powell can enlist foreign help is immaterial to other experts who say the important question is the amount of authority Iraqis will have to start running their own affairs.

"It's naive to think the State Department wasn't already deeply involved in the reconstruction effort and thus is somehow something fresh," says Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Starting out [after the transfer of sovereignty] with an embassy of 3,000 people is something offensive."

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