NEARLY two days of senior-level briefings at the State Department last week, for 27 sharp, crisp editorial writers from across the country and me, provided an excellent snapshot of U.S. foreign policy three months into the Bush II-B administration.
The department appeared to take us seriously. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave us more than an hour, almost entirely devoted to questions and answers, which journalists love. Its mask almost slipped when we were told by a more junior official that the briefings were part of the department's program to pay more attention to newspapers in the interior of the country. Come to think of it, there was no one there from the New York Times or the Washington Post, the alpha papers for the Washington crowd.
For me it was an unusual situation, having served as a career Foreign Service officer for 35 years before retiring from the Department of State to write for the Post-Gazette and The Blade.
I started to worry at the end of the two days when another official began telling us how much people in the department had enjoyed meeting with us. I raised my eyebrows viciously and said that must mean that our questions hadn't been penetrating enough; State Department officials should have aged significantly as a result of the encounter.
What worried me most about the affair was the high prevalence of Bush Administration dogma in the 15 presentations. Dogma in general is an enemy of the clear, rational thinking that should govern the development and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. It is literally a life-and-death affair that can send thousands of Americans to war for the right or wrong reasons, as we have seen in Iraq. A good number of this group of senior officials stayed right "on message" throughout, following the prescribed script that frequently passes for thoughtful analysis in this administration.
There were lots of "aspirations for democracy and freedom and liberty." There was "the beginning of the lifting of fear." "Democracy will be on the march for some time," we heard. The United States had left or was leaving Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq better than we had found them. I didn't think we had left Iraq yet.
The United States has an image problem, one official acknowledged, but it is really a communications problem, not a policy problem. A reporter from San Antonio brought that dreamy soliloquy to an end by asking why the administration called what was happening in the Sudan genocide and then did nothing about it.
Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Liz, who is second-in-command in U.S. Middle Eastern policy, talked about "the freedom agenda in the broader Middle East and North Africa." She said the United States "supports people working for freedom." If she doesn't include Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in that category - a real squeeze - the United States is going to have a hard time working out a viable post-Gaza-pull-out security arrangement as part of the Middle East road map to two states, the achievement of which is one of President Bush's avowed goals.
Afghanistan is allegedly becoming a moderate, democratic state, the Taliban insurgency is weakening, and the Afghan economy is rebuilding, they said. I guess no one told the Taliban, who are still killing Americans and Afghans.
Ms. Rice was very articulate, talking about a range of widely varying topics, including Iran. She laid out a clear picture of what should be the next steps by both the Israelis and the Palestinians in completing President Bush's road map to an independent Palestinian state.
I found Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega much more on top of his game this year than last. He signaled Cuba, Venezuela, and Haiti as the problems of the region, the first two reflecting dogma. But he was open and realistic about dialogue with Indian political leaders in the Andes and agreed that there is a need to work with populists in countries like Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil.
A significant effort was made to try to dress up the current state of U.S.-China relations. Communications were more frequent and more informal, it was said. China is being very helpful in trying to relaunch six-power talks with North Korea. (They are still stuck, by the way.) The position of the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs on the ability of the United States to stand between China and Taiwan in the Taiwan Straits sounded like dangerous vainglory to me. This is an assessment reinforced by China's current military build-up, particularly in its amphibious capacity.
The African Affairs Bureau sent an officer to brief us only on Sudan, probably the pre-eminent issue in Africa at this time although there are many more. Although his exposition was clear and detailed, he presented in general a depressing picture of needs which greatly exceed resources, normal for U.S. policy in Africa.
My main conclusion was that the United States has perforce a wide and varied foreign policy. My sub-conclusion was that, with the White House and both houses of Congress in the same party's hands, the need for the media to make a major effort to keep our leadership honest is more important than it has been in many years.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.