Over the past year and a half, the State Department has reemerged as the preeminent force in U.S. foreign relations, one that on the surface seems capable of challenging the aggressive, go-it-alone politics of both the Pentagon and of the office of the vice president. Viewed by many observers as a sign of President George W. Bush’s second-term chastening, the revival of State has nonetheless been accompanied by a number of contradictory impulses, raising questions about the department’s ability-or willingness-to champion diplomacy in the face of a loud campaign by neoconservatives and hawks for further intervention in the Middle East as the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel intensifies.

Although the tilt toward diplomacy began as early as late 2003, when it became clear that the invasion of Iraq had unleashed an implacable insurgency for which the administration was completely unprepared, it was not until Condoleezza Rice took over as Secretary of State that this shift gained steam. In the last 18 months, Rice and other “realists” have won praise for what is seen as a “strategic makeover” of the administration’s foreign policy. (See the Time magazine cover by Mike Allen and Romesh Ratnesar, “The End of Cowboy Diplomacy,” July 17, 2006.) In addition to intensified consultation with U.S. allies, the change has been most evident in a few major arenas: Bush’s new willingness to offer concessions to both North Korea and Iran as part of multilateral negotiations to get them to freeze or abandon their nuclear programs; State’s relaxation of pressure on Syria in exchange for Damascus’s cooperation on Iraq; and its efforts to engage and co-opt Sunni insurgents and ex-Ba’athists in Iraq.

European leaders’ enthusiasm for Washington’s newly pragmatic orientation is evidence of the realist resurgence, as is the recent outcry of protest from the ranks of prominent neoconservatives-particularly with respect to the administration’s openness to directly engaging Iran, which they see as the main sponsor of Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

But if Dick Cheney and the hardliners have been down, they certainly have not been out. That the “cowboys” have been able to limit the freedom of Rice and the realists has been made clear in a number of ways. In May, for example, the State Department reportedly wanted to accept North Korea’s invitation to Pyongyang for informal bilateral talks, but Cheney scuttled the idea. Some analysts believe that the rebuff was the proximate cause of North Korea’s early July missile tests. In the Middle East, the State Department recommended a more forthcoming position on the provision of humanitarian and development assistance to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas’s victory in the January elections but was unable to prevail at the White House. Similarly, State Department officials reportedly favored a more flexible U.S. position on negotiating security guarantees with Iran, as urged by Washington’s European partners, if Tehran agreed to freeze its nuclear program, but hardliners succeeded in vetoing that, too.

A clear pattern has emerged: Each time the State Department tries to nudge the United States toward a more conciliatory position in hopes of engaging the “enemy” in a diplomatic process, Cheney and the hardliners succeed in limiting the diplomats’ ability to do so. In the latest crisis over Lebanon, some observers have perceived a difference in the way the State Department and the White House have reacted to the dramatic escalation in the Middle East. Consistent with her interest in maintaining as unified a stance as possible with Washington’s European allies, Rice, for example, has both publicly and privately urged restraint on Israel in Gaza, and especially now in Lebanon. Echoing Israel’s stance, on the other hand, the White House, where prominent neoconservative Elliott Abrams holds the Middle East portfolio, has emphasized Syria and Iran’s alleged responsibility for the situation.

The limitations on the ability of the State Department to push negotiations are not only external. Indeed, since Rice took over at State, the department has brought on a number of officials whose agendas seem diametrically opposed to diplomacy. This began when John Bolton, a Cheney favorite who is closely aligned with leading neoconservatives, was-in the face of congressional opposition-given a recess appointment to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. U.S. allies, who view Bolton as a proxy for the Bush administration’s take-it-or-leave-it posture, have heavily criticized Bolton’s tenure, which is up for confirmation in the Senate later this year. As one unnamed UN ambassador “with close ties” to the administration told the New York Times recently, “My initial feeling was, let’s see if we can work with [Bolton], and I have done some things to push for consensus on issues that were not easy for my country. But all he gives us in return is, ‘It doesn’t matter, whatever you do is insufficient’.” Added the ambassador: “He’s lost me as an ally now, and that’s what many other ambassadors who consider themselves friends of the United States are saying.”

The Bolton faction was apparently reinforced at State in early June 2006, when Randall Fort was nominated to serve as head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. A former executive at Goldman Sachs, Fort’s ties to Bolton (he reportedly provided a letter of support for Bolton during his Senate confirmation hearings) has raised questions about whether State’s intel office, one of the few intelligence outfits that challenged the administration’s reasons for going to war in Iraq, would continue to provide an independent voice.

The February 2005 appointment of Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the vice president, to serve as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs was also viewed as a potential thorn in the side of diplomacy. With a mandate and an $85 million budget to advance regime change strategies in the Middle East, Liz Cheney’s work was applauded by neoconservative pundits. In early April, Lawrence Kaplan, senior editor at The New Republic and coauthor with William Kristol of the 2003 book The War over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission, reported on the creation of an interagency group headed by Cheney called the Iran Syria Operations Group (ISOG). Kaplan opined: “The simple fact of ISOG’s existence suggests that, despite being burned so badly in Iraq for listening exclusively to like-minded advisers, the administration intends to keep its own counsel on Iran too. On the up side, the creation of ISOG offers further proof that government officials have finally gotten serious about the threat from Tehran.”

Cheney has also been associated with a new State outfit called the Office of Iranian Affairs, an office that many critics view as a revival of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, the controversial intel outfit accused of manipulating intelligence during the run-up to the Iraq War. While there is little evidence to suggest that the office will dabble in intelligence issues, some observers see its creation as another example of the contradictory policies pushed by the administration recently. Said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a State Department official under Colin Powell, “We are telling Iran, ‘We want regime change, but while you’re still here, we’d like to nego

tiate with you to stop your nuclear program’.”

Then there is Rice’s failure to quickly choose a successor for her realist-inclined deputy, Robert Zoellick, who announced in June that he was resigning to take up a post at Goldman Sachs. This has raised concerns among some observers that a Dick Cheney favorite, like Abrams or Deputy National Security Adviser J.D. Crouch, may claim the spot.

And finally there is Rice herself, who seems to embody the contradictions in the State Department. Her historic announcement in May that the United States would be willing to negotiate with Tehran if the country suspended its uranium enrichment program appeared to solidify the administration’s shift to diplomacy, drawing cries of protest from many neoconservatives. The Center for Security Policy typified the hardliners’ reaction, opining on its website: “In the face of intensifying Iranian intransigence and provocations, President Bush has decided to adopt the recommendations of appeasement-prone subordinates . The decision announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today that the United States would be prepared to participate directly-as opposed to through European and United Nations proxies-in negotiations with the terrorist-sponsoring mullahocracy in Tehran, if only it will promise to suspend its nuclear weapons activities, will only reward and lead to more of such behavior.”

Several weeks later, however, the tables seem to have turned. Despite her muted calls for restraint in response to the escalating violence between Israel and Hezbollah, Rice’s refusal to step into the fray by visiting the region immediately after the conflict broke out was viewed by observers as a clear expression of support for Israel’s bombing campaign. Rice has also trotted out the shopworn rhetoric of reshaping the Middle East and repeated the disingenuous claim that the problems in the region boil down to terrorist opposition to change. Two days after the outbreak of hostilities, Rice argued: “Obviously Iran is involved. Iran is financing Hezbollah. Iran is providing technology. Syria is harboring Hezbollah . So yes, what you have here [is] that extremist forces-Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iranians, and the Syrians-recognize that they are facing a different kind of Middle East, the emergence of a different kind of Middle East in which democratic and moderate forces will dominate . and they want to stop it.”

The current Middle East crisis appears to have opened the way for a resurgence of the hardliners in the administration, much to the frustration of realists in and out of government. And European allies and “moderate” Arab states like Jordan and Egypt are increasingly worried that Washington’s virtually unconditional backing for Israel in the conflict is inflaming public opinion.

Just like after 9/11, a Middle East-related crisis appears to be strengthening the hand of right-wing hawks. The question is, does Rice have the will-or wherewithal-to push back?

Michael Flynn is the Right Web project director. Jim Lobe is a Right Web contributing writer and the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service.