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Published: Wednesday, 5/7/2008

The pros step up when a change in leadership nears

GIVEN the pre-eminence of what happens in Washington both with respect to America as well as to the rest of the world, there is some reason for concern - even disquiet - when the American government is approaching a major change of leadership.

As a child playing in the hills of southern Ohio, I remember being told to stay away from copperhead snakes when they were changing their skins. They were said to be exceptionally nasty in that vulnerable state.

Thus, I wondered what I would find when, with a group of editorialists and columnists from the National Conference of Editorial Writers, I paid my annual visit to the Department of State.

Would its personnel be more vicious than normal, or exceptionally torpid, or what? After all, those who were political appointees either were or would shortly be in the process of putting out their resumes for onward employment, in competition with each other.

Democrats in exile often shelter at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Republicans tend to cluster at Stanford's Hoover Institute or at the American Enterprise Institute.

Outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is predicted to return to Stanford in January, although there are rumors that some faculty there are not entirely excited at the thought, given her seemingly uncritical, lackluster approach to some of the policy atrocities of the Bush Administration.

I was present in the government for some radical changes of administration during the 35 years that I was a career Foreign Service officer and then ambassador.

The career officers, who are by requirement and nature somewhat neutral about these matters, are generally happy to see political appointees go out the door, required to seek other employment.

It wasn't that we didn't like them. We understood quite well the patronage system that put them in and among us - or, more likely - over us.

Whether the American people are well-served by this approach to the conduct of U.S. foreign relations - direction by amateurs - is another question. But the professionals are used to it and generally devote themselves to seeing that the departees don't take the china and that the new arrivals understand the realities of U.S. relations with country or region X.

Their other task is to see to it that the new approach of the incoming administration is put into operation in a way that is not damaging - and as useful as possible - to U.S. interests.

The most drastic change that I lived and worked through was the departure from office of the relatively liberal Democratic President Jimmy Carter, to be replaced by the conservative-right administration of President Ronald Reagan.

Even though I shared the concern of some that Mr. Reagan's new people would come down on the State Department like the Assyrian wolf on the fold, in the event there was not only no night of the long knives, there was, in fact, a serious and welcome review and revision of U.S. foreign policy.

When the new Reagan appointees figured out that the professionals were there to help, not to sabotage their policies, the whole process went quite smoothly.

To return to my recent visit to the State Department in my post-retirement journalist role, I found both the department's remaining Republican political leadership and its professional cadre to be in an electoral, pre-change mode.

The political types understand that there is no point in trying to do anything major now.

Any serious foreign policy effort is per se a long-term undertaking. Everyone knows that, even if Republican Sen. John McCain wins in November there still will be major changes in personnel and policy.

Even more significantly, America's foreign partners know that change is coming. A new administration might be inclined to keep a deal that the outgoing Bush Administration made in its last days, if it were a good one, but don't count on it.

Significant also is the fact that starting in January, there will be major changes of personnel throughout the top ranks of the government. For foreign diplomats and other outside interlocutors of U.S. officialdom, now is the time to be nice to the professionals who are going to bridge the gap between the outgoing and incoming administrations.

Even though the new people will - quite rightly - have some suspicion of the professionals, sensing that they are to a degree chameleon-like in their loyalties, outsiders understand full well that these professionals are the ones who will be preparing briefing books on them for the new crowd: "The Brobdignabian Ambassador is basically a toad; his wife is gracious but he has a girlfriend whom he keeps in an apartment up on 16th Street. His cocaine habit runs his government about $1,000 a week."

In the meantime, fear not.

The State Department's professionals have a clear idea and a serious sense of responsibility about how to keep the ship of state on an even keel while the awkward, sometimes wrenching change of command is taking place at the wheel.

I found this to be the case during my recent visit and briefings.

The professional approach prevailed in the regional bureaus - those concerned with sticky, tricky subjects like North Korea's nuclear program, the NATO alliance, relations with Iran, and trying to prevent China's buying vital parts of the United States.

Even more important was the care the department's professionals showed in their approach to subjects such as fighting HIV/AIDS and other global-scope diseases, counterterrorism, and providing food aid to the world's starving.

For the most part the neo-conservative zealots are gone, or have been sobered into relative rationality by reality. The new people won't begin to present the challenges they represent until mid-spring, 2009.

In the meantime, the professionals in the State Department have our backs.



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