Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused the State Department of undermining President Bush's foreign policy and denounced Secretary of State Colin Powell's plan to go to Syria as ludicrous.
Gingrich, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, directed much of his fire Tuesday at the department's Near East Bureau. The Institute, a conservative think tank, has helped fill major spots in the Bush administration.
"They have a constituency of Middle East governments deeply opposed to democracy in Iraq," Gingrich said. "Their instinct is to create a weakened Iraqi government that will not threaten its Syrian, Iranian, Saudi and other dictatorial neighbors."
As for Powell's trip to Syria, the Republican former House leader said that to meet "with a terrorist-supporting, secret police-wielding dictator is ludicrous."
By contrast, Gingrich said, the U.S. military has created an opportunity to apply genuine economic, diplomatic and political pressure against Syria.
Instead, he said, "The State Department is back at work pursuing policies that will clearly throw away all the fruits of hard-won victory."
Gingrich said "the current Syrian dictatorship" openly hosts seven terrorist offices in downtown Damascus, is developing chemical weapons of mass destruction and occupying Lebanon and transmitting weapons to Hezbollah guerrillas for attacks against Israel.
"This is a time for America to demand changes in Damascus before a visit is even considered," he said. "The visit should be a reward for public change, not an appeal to a weak, economically depressed dictatorship."
Gingrich, a fellow of the Institute, made his speech among a spate of reports of feuding between the Pentagon and the State Department.
The department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said he had had "a chance to skim the speech" and went on to defend the department as implementing administration policies, including an attempt to resolve differences with Syria.
"The State Department is here to carry out the president's (foreign) policy," he said, and "we are doing that effectively; we are doing that loyally; we are doing that diligently."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Powell was carrying out President Bush's wishes in planning a trip to Syria, "The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria, and we intend to use those diplomatic relations to good advantage," Fleischer said.
Among Gingrich's accusations of sustained diplomatic failure were the focus on weapons inspections in prewar Iraq; approving Hans Blix as chief U.N. inspector, "even though he was clearly opposed to war and determined to buy time and find excuses for Saddam Hussein," and accepting the United Nations, the European Union and Russia as partners in Middle East peacemaking.
"Without bold, dramatic change at the State Department, the United States will soon find itself on the defensive everywhere except militarily," Gingrich said. "In the long run, that is a very dangerous position for the world's leading democracy to be in."
The former speaker proposed that President Bush appoint a small group to make proposals for "a transformation of the diplomatic, communications and assistance elements of the United States."
Gingrich resigned as House speaker in 1998 and gave up the House seat he had held for 20 years representing a district in suburban Atlanta. He quit after Republicans lost five House seats in midterm elections that year and after apologizing for violating House rules on the use of tax-exempt funds.