EVERY year the U.S. State Department invites members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers to Washington for high-level briefings on U.S. foreign policy.
The department rolls out its A team. This year the "names" included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton, who normally hangs out in New York, and Karen Hughes, now undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs and longtime Texas political sidekick of The Decider, the President of the United States.
The group of writers, some of us from the more sordid reaches of the American interior, try to ask good questions. As a 35-year veteran of the State Department and retired ambassador, I welcome and value highly the annual opportunity, fully aware of the worth of the time of the talent who are briefing us. I also, by experience and instinct, view what transpires with some skepticism and irony. I know how good the State Department is at spin, or, let's say, at suggesting the interpretation of events in far-off lands that is most flattering to the administration's resident geniuses.
It was thus that I even sniffed suspiciously at the little favor left at each of our places when we arrived, a small flashlight. Was it to distract us as we listened? Did it contain a surveillance device? Or was it perhaps to help us peer more closely into some of the darker corners of foreign policy?
In any case, I don't usually harvest some millennial insight or particularly tasty piece of intelligence from these sessions. At the same time, they have always provided me with very good background for editorials and my columns, which, I hope, will be of future benefit to my readers. I do believe that the Department of State briefers are reasonably candid with the journalists. If we felt defrauded, we wouldn't come back.
On other hand, if we journalists were particularly depraved in our after-briefing writing, we would run the risk of meeting only with the staff assistant to the deputy assistant undersecretary for good works the next year. So the whole transaction ends up being reasonably satisfying. All of that is prelude to a few observations.
1. Iraq and what to do about it remains the hungry black bear of U.S. policy. The first briefer listed the big-issue priorities. The first of these was getting Iraq on a stable footing. Second was Iran and the nuclear weapons that the United States is convinced it is intending to produce. Third was Sudan, an issue that he claimed has resonance across the United States. Fourth was Israel and the Palestinians. Tied for fifth were Russia, which is "going backwards," and China, the U.S. relationship with which is too complex to label, he said.
2. There remains considerable concern at the top of the Bush Administration to stay "on message" - which is to say, publicly monolithic - on the subject of Iraq. This intent seems to have become even more intense as various skirmishers, civilian and military, inside and outside the administration, take pot shots at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and look for blue water between him and Ms. Rice. While we were there, the two of them met together with another group, physically and verbally demonstrating indefatigable solidarity.
The one time that Ms. Rice got snippy during our meeting with her was when one of our members dared to suggest that everybody "wasn't quite on the same page at all times." Her response was: "The secretary of defense is the secretary of defense. He doesn't do foreign policy and I would expect him to be worried about issues like, you know, militarily how we are dealing with issues." (Back to your bombing plans, Rummy!)
3. I found considerable cognitive dissonance in the effort to somehow square the administration's aggressiveness in making and selling the case against Iran based on its insistence on its right to develop a nuclear program, and U.S. policy toward other nuclear outlaws: India, Israel, and Pakistan. None of those three countries, which among them are estimated to have several hundred nuclear weapons, has signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty or accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. Iran has signed the NPT and has accepted IAEA inspections.
The weak case that Robert Joseph, undersecretary for Arms Control, tried to make was that Iran was somehow worse than India, Israel, and Pakistan because it had signed the agreement and accepted inspection but then allegedly cheated on its commitments. That sounded to me like an argument for insisting on stronger enforcement, rather than for isolating Iran and seeking regime change there because of its villainy.
4. We saw considerable, sometimes almost flashy, competence at the regional bureau level. The best - according to me, possibly revealing my own prejudice toward career officers as opposed to political appointees - included Assistant Secretary for Europe Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary for East Asia Christopher Hill, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Near East Scott Carpenter, a Pittsburgher no less. I answered his "Go, Steelers" with a particularly ugly and aggressive question later, in keeping with custom in our tribal area.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.