Cheney and Rice Begin Overhaul of State Department

Secretary of State Colin Powell, frozen out of the tight White House policy-making circle, is preparing to step down immediately after the November elections.

The Bush administration, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report exclusively from the US capital, is already filling gaps. While the media pick their way through the thickets of the 9/11 inquiry and splash revolting images of Iraqi prisoner abuse by US servicemen, the administration is very quietly overhauling the higher ranks of the State Department. Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice are spearheading the project.

Even under the torrential downpour of disasters descending on the administration, both are convinced that George W. Bush will win the November election. Rice is assured of taking over as secretary of state in the second Bush administration and is building a “new” State Department that will get behind the president’s Iraq policy and hammer home his Greater Middle East Initiative for spreading democratic reform around the Arab world.

The first department attacked by Cheney and Rice is the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which is responsible for the Middle East. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, its director, assistant secretary of state William Burns, has already received notice of his reassignment late summer as the next US ambassador in Moscow. It sounds like a good step for Bill Burns; in fact, it is not much of a promotion for Bush’s erstwhile Middle East envoy since America’s man in Moscow will not have much to do beyond ceremonial functions because access to the Kremlin is channeled through the direct line Rice established with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

David C. Welch, who as current American ambassador to Egypt has had a rough ride in Cairo, will take over from Burn at State, where as a non-Arabist he is unique. During his tenure in Cairo, Welch was constantly at odds with President Hosni Mubarak‘s office and the Egyptian foreign ministry over pan-Arab issues, Iraq and pressure for democratic reform in Egypt. He was regularly vilified by the Cairo media. David Satterfield, Burns’ deputy at the Bureau of Near East Affairs is also moving sideways to the post of ambassador in a Western European country, most probably the Netherlands. Another key player at State, James Larocco, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is being shifted too.

The State Department reorganization supervised by Cheney and Rice is also structural. Sections are being scrapped, departments merged and their budgets transferred to other government agencies. The revised department will emerge from its post-election chrysalis with its old Middle East hands amputated, an expression of the Bush-Cheney regime’s profound dissatisfaction with Powell’s stewardship.

On the Democratic side, with no running mate named yet, the post-election ground is still shifting under the putative position of Secretary of State. Several Democratic sources in Washington commented on the disclosure by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 155 of outgoing Iraq administrator Paul Bremer’s plan to occupy this position in a John Kerry administration. Some advise him to prepare for possible disappointment as more contenders enter the field. George Mitchell, a former senator and twice peace broker for Northern Ireland and Middle East, thinks he has a stronger claim on the job. Mitchell is close to Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, who now advises Kerry on future cabinet appointments. In addition to his troubleshooting experience in world hotspots, Mitchell has good relations with senior politicians and intelligence officials in NATO and Britain.

Another possible claimant is Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and the moving force behind the decision to invade Kosovo in 1999. Holbrooke holds strong views on most major foreign policy issues. Speaking this week about the events at Abu Ghraib, he declared the American position in Iraq had become “untenable”. He called what was happening, “The most serious setback for the American military since Vietnam.”

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