Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy
Less and less time passes between the moment our high officials leave office and the publication of their memoirs. General Haig’s appear only twenty-one months after his dismissal. No doubt some books would profit from more time and care, but this is not one of them. Reading it, one does not know what to admire less, the mind of the author or the workings of the Reagan administration, which he describes and condemns.
This is a sad book—not only because of the story it tells, a story of petty disputes, systematic leaks, and heavy-handed clumsiness. It is sad for reasons its author doesn’t seem to know or understand. Everything he touches he trivializes. He gives not so much an account of american diplomacy during his eighteen months in office as the story of his tribulations and skirmishes with the President’s staff during certain episodes of American foreign policy. All the slights he suffered and fights he lost are duly reported. But as we shall see, what he says about the substance of foreign policy is often crude and vague. And while one learns something about the tawdry vaudeville of the administration, one can’t help being struck by the fuzziness of Haig’s accusations against his tormentors.
Who were, after all, the villains who prevented the General from carrying out his mission? Often he points a finger at Edwin Meese, but then he tells us Meese was “a decent and honorable man…. The trouble lay elsewhere in the President’s staff” (p. 148). Was it James Baker, who, according to a well-placed friend of Haig’s, told a group in the White House that Haig would have “to go, and go quickly,…and we are going to make it happen” (p. 302)? But Haig has just conceded that in the celebrated case of the airplane without windows or adequate communications equipment that had been humiliatingly assigned to him during the Falklands crisis, it wasn’t Baker who had planted the story of his complaint in The New York Times. Who was it that at the first Cabinet meeting suggested abrogating Carter’s agreement with Iran for the return of the hostages? Haig doesn’t say. Who really objected to the appointment of former aides of Kissinger? Meese said it was Senator Helms, but Helms denied it. We’ll never know the full truth. But should we care?
The chronology is often tricky. In the chapter on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Haig jumps from the end of 1981 to May 28, 1982, then goes back to May 7, and then back to 1981. Most chapters end with a bizarre section called “background,” which does nothing at all to explain the background of the issues discussed, but usually highlights some episode in the shadowy war between Haig’s enemies, the press, and himself. While the book doesn’t suffer from what became known as “Haigspeak” during the Secretary’s public performances, it contains a number of malapropisms and curiosities. He reports a visit to Mr. Reagan’s ranch in August 1979, in which…
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