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 the two men discussed the plight of the hostages in Iran—who were seized only in November 1979. He tells us that the main purpose of his talks in 1979 to business and professional audiences, which had “the appearance of a run at the nomination,” was “the support of my family” (p. 3). In describing the Reagan administration’s original START proposal, he confuses ICBMs with warheads on ICBMs (the limit Reagan wanted was 2,500 warheads, not 2,500 ICBMs, p. 223). Perhaps the most revealing gaffe comes on page 173, where he mentions Prime Minister Begin struggling “with the complicated issue of granting some form of local autonomy to Palestinian settlements on the West Bank.” This either confuses Palestinian villages with Israeli settlements or endorses Begin’s Peculiar reading of the Camp David agreements.
The brother of a Jesuit, Haig seems more enamored of religious than of military metaphors. As the world knows, he wanted to be the “vicar” of US foreign policy. He tell us that “the world diplomatic community is, figuratively speaking, a gigantic monastery teeming with dedicated friars whose labor is devoted to wringing every nuance and hidden meaning out of such screeds as the transcripts of television shows” (p. 86). His prose is at its most vigorous when he lets himself go and draws on his capacity for sarcasm and scorn, as when he writes that “Nixon…isolated Spiro T. Agnew as if he were a bacillus” (p. 143)—or when he deals with his foes.
President Reagan announced General haig’s appointment on his way to a haircut, and Haig’s “resignation” on his way to a weekend at Camp David. What happened during the eighteen months in between can be explained fairly simply. General Haig had received his political education in the Nixon White House, first as Henry Kissinger’s deputy, when Kissinger was in charge of national security, later as Nixon’s last chief of staff. This experience had left its mark. First, as was shown during Haig’s confirmation hearings, he never quite seemed to understand what Watergate was about, and appeared more annoyed by those who denounced illegal and unconstitutional acts than by those who had committed them. When Senator Sarbanes, and Haig’s own lawyer, Joseph Califano, tried to get him to condemn those responsible, all they were able to extract was a reference to the “tragedy” of Watergate, and he could not understand what his own role in the Nixon White House had to do with his qualifications to be secretary of state (p. 40).
Secondly, Haig as secretary of state was determined, from the start, to be the single source of American foreign policy, just as kissinger had been in Nixon’s days. The Nixon administration had begun with a reorganization of the foreign policy apparatus (prepared, at kissinger’s request, by Morton Halperin) that ut all the threads into Kissinger’s hands. “As Kissinger, that canny veteran of marches and counter-marches in the faculty of Harvard University, recognized, he who controls the key IG’s [interagency groups] controls the flow of options to the president and, therefore, to a degree, controls policy” (p. 60)—a remark that shows better knowledge of governmental procedure than of either Harvard’s staid faculty in the days Kissinger was one of its members or of Kissinger’s own assiduity at faculty meetings. When, on January 6, 1981, Reagan nodded agreement at Haig’s request to be “vicar,” Haig went about getting a memo—to be called National Security Decision Document I—drafted accordingly.
Haig’s own earlier story had been that of the emancipation of a deputy. Starting as kissinger’s top aide, he had gradually shifted allegiance to Nixon—particularly, throughout 1972, over Vietnam—just as Kissinger was coming out of Nixon’s shadow and asserting his independence. During the Reagan administration, his own deputy, william clark, did to Haig what Haig had done to Kissinger. He had selected Clark because of Clark’s closeness to Reagan, whose “old and trusted friend” Clark was. When the first national security adviser, Richard Allen, was forced to resign, Clark succeeded him. Allen had never had direct access to the President. Clark did, and soon Haig and Clark found each other on opposite sides of issues—and it was Clark, “drained of his old good fellowship,” who told Haig, in June 1982: “you’d better understand that from now on it’s going to be the President’s foreign policy” (p. 307).
Haig found himself caught in a situation against which he raged. he describes it as tragic for the country, but it had its comic aspects. Two things seemed clear from the outset: First, Haig himself was under a cloud: not his part in the Watergate events, but his brief presidential aspirations made him suspect to the President’s staff. Before the inauguration, at a dinner for the new prime minister of Jamaica, Edwin Meese asked Haig if he wanted to be president. During his confirmation hearings, Haig was “left entirely to [his] own devices. No advice, no offer of help, no word of encouragement came…from Reagan or his staff” (p. 53). After the famous episode following the attempt on the president’s life, in which Haig declared himself “in control here,” a flood of statements by White House officials praising haig’s steadiness and competence made haig wonder why they thought it necessary to stress his virtues.
Secondly, Reagan—or his entourage—seemed determined to avoid a repetition of what had happened during the Kissinger day. Haig was never able to get his version of NSDDI approved: the draft he gave to Meese on Inauguration Day was both leaked anonymously to the press as a “grab for power” by Haig and promptly lost by its recipient—as was a second version submitted two weeks later. The episode in which the White House set up a “crisis management” procedure under Vice-President Bush without informing Haig, and before a revised National Security Decision document was issued, should have made it clear to Haig exactly where he stood.
And yet it seems that Haig could never accept reality. The main reason was his bizarre relations with Reagan. He could almost never see him alone; he could never get him to set aside a regular hour (even one hour per week!) to discuss foreign policy. But whenever he protested about the interference of others and insisted on his vicarage Reagan seemed to agree with him. The President’s nods of support—“I’ll look to you, Al,” “I’m with you,” “You are my foreign policy guy,” “That’s all right, Al, don’t worry”—were about as ambiguous, or meaningless, as President Carter’s smile. “Because of his habitual cheery courtesy, it is at times difficult to know when [Reagan] is agreeing or disagreeing, approving or disapproving” (p. 57). For as long as he could, Haig chose to believe that Reagan actually meant him to be “vicar.”
The first real expression of presidential displeasure over Haig’s behavior did not come until June 12, 1982, when Haig sent Philip Habib, in Lebanon, a set of instructions without waiting for the results of a National Security Council review ordered by Reagan (and even then Reagan said nothing at all about the substance of Haig’s instructions). It wasn’t until June 24 that Reagan clearly told Haig he couldn’t “give you what you’re asking for”; the next day, Haig was fired. Nevertheless, Haig should have understood all along that Reagan would not trust him. There were, from the beginning, serious points of disagreement between them. Haig wanted to cultivate the communist Chinese; Reagan did not want to offend Taiwan. Haig argued that Reagan’s aggressive opposition to the Soviet natural gas pipeline would result in nothing more than offense to the Western Europeans. On most issues Reagan seemed willing to tolerate several points of view; he was never eager to impose the disciplined system his impatient secretary of state demanded. (Haig immediately set up such a system to handle public relations after the assassination attempt on Reagan.)
At the same time Haig made it clear that he found most of the other people who advised Reagan on foreign affairs incompetent and wrongheaded. Indeed, the picture he gives us of the Reagan administration is devastating. The President seemed thoroughly “managed” by his entourage, as if his men were afraid of what would happen if they left him to himself. They may have had good reason. When he met the Chinese premier, who brought him a radically new “reunification plan” promising a vast measure of autonomy to Taiwan, and mentioned the risk of Soviet influence in Taiwan, Reagan replied that what the Taiwanese were afraid of was communism—not Russia. The President let his “triumvirate”—Meese, Baker, Deaver—sit at the Cabinet table, while Meese played the part of the President. Reagan preferred meeting with reporters to an important tête-à-tête with Mitterrand at the Versailles summit of leaders of industrial nations. He refrained from questioning Begin’s “basic assumptions” at his first meeting with the Israeli prime minister even though his advisers had wanted a showdown. When Begin came again shortly after the beginning of the invasion of Lebanon, Reagan merely “read off the American position from typed file cards” (p. 344).
Reagan, moreover, had a system in which, at first, neither the national security adviser (who reported to Meese) nor Haig could consult directly with the President when they wanted to. The first national security adviser, Richard Allen, soon appeared to all “as being irrelevant” (p. 85); the second, William Clark, whose “ability to grasp complex issues” (p. 66) was in doubt, remained a man “of limited experience and limited understanding of the volatile nature of an international conflict” (p. 339). Yet Clark seemed to be “conducting a second foreign policy, using separate channels of communication.” Meese’s power soon slipped because while he was busy attending policy meetings and curbing the Cabinet, he had no hold on what Haig calls the “three main levers of power in the White House, the flow of paper, the President’s schedule, and the press” (p. 83).
The secretary of defense kept undercutting the secretary of state by stating his own views: “His tendency to blurt out locker-room opinions in the guise of policy was one that I prayed he might overcome. If God heard, He did not answer in any way understandable to me. The arduous duty of construing the meaning of Cap Weinberger’s public sayings was a steady drain on time and patience” (pp. 87–88). Except for the Falklands, the two men seemed to have clashed over every issue: Central America, the pipeline, Poland, Lebanon, arms control, even what to do after the assassination attempt, when Weinberger decided to raise the alert status of US forces without quite knowing what exactly he had ordered. Where Haig was “soft,” Weinberger was “hard,” and vice versa.
As for Mrs. Kirkpatrick, she first called on Haig “to complain about the inadequacy of her office, her limousine, her personal staff, and her security detail” (p. 69). Favoring Argentina, she contradicted Haig’s Falklands policy and kept “describing the progress and the meaning of the talks, about which she knew little, in a variety of public forums—and, if the British are to be believed, in a very active pattern of private contacts” (p. 269). In general, she was, Haig says, “merely acting according to the rules of the system which had at its heart an evidently irresistible desire to save the president’s popularity even if this meant undermining the President’s policies” (pp. 269–270).
Indeed, there was, despite their ideological compatibility, a fundamental incompatibility between Haig and the Reaganites. While he wanted to be “in control,” they wanted to make things look as if the President was in charge—the more so, since he really wasn’t. Moreover, “the Samsons of populism and petty ambition” (p. 356), as he put it, used, with great virtuosity, the press as a means of boosting the President’s popularity. Leaks became “a way of life”; they “constituted policy; they were the authentic voice of the government” (p. 17). Every document or decision was immediately communicated to a newspaper or network. “For the first time in living memory, you could actually believe almost everything you read” (p. 19).
Haig saw this as an attempt by the President’s closest aides, “essentially public relations men,” to disarm ideological hostility. Haig, whose own relations with the press were never very friendly—he saw himself “cast as Iago” (p. 35)—and who had once transmitted orders to wiretap journalists and aides of Kissinger suspected of having been involved in leaks, was clearly out of sympathy with this method of government. Meese and Baker, he thought, must have regarded him as “a naif who did not understand that publicity is the engine of politics” (p. 86).
Above all, Haig was—like Kissinger—a believer in the primacy of foreign policy. To him—as at the time of the firing of the Watergate prosecutor—the president was above all the commander in chief. He soon discovered that the President and his men, with their “populist instincts,” were concerned above all with domestic politics, and with popularity at home: the system of Cabinet councils set up by Meese was “politically loaded in favor of the major domestic vested interest concerned” (p. 82). It was more important to announce immediately the lifting of the grain embargo, or of the embargo on the companies building the pipeline, than to warn the allies through diplomatic channels. On El Salvador, the “troika”—Meese, Baker, Deaver—pleaded for “caution and slow decision” out of concern for the public mood. They were “reluctant to take any action that might alter it in the President’s disfavor” (p. 130). On Poland, to the contrary, some of his men wanted to take tough measures, even at the expense of allies, given the mood at home. “The President’s aides, in the first days of the Administration, appeared to believe that foreign policy did not matter much: the problems of the nation were essentially domestic and if the economy was made healthy and the government trimmed down, all else would follow naturally” (p. 357).
One can now see the scope of the misunderstanding between Reagan and Haig. On many issues and measures the two men could agree, because they met both the criterion of simplistic anticommunist ideology and the requirement of domestic popularity. But the President and his staff were determined above all to maintain that popularity, and this required not so much mastery of the foreign policy process (Haig shows there never was one) as constant interference, and, if necessary, obstruction, aimed at preventing the hapless “vicar” from doing things that could harm the President’s domestic image.
Nobody could have been more unfit for so unrewarding a role as the combative, assertive, and arrogant Haig. And so, the man whom Nixon had once asked to carry to Secretary of State Rogers the news of his dismissal ended up being told by his designated successor, Shultz, that Reagan, who had asked Haig to stay on until Shultz was sworn in, now, eleven days later, wanted him out. Haig, still disbelieving, said he wanted to hear this directly from Reagan, to make sure it was really what Reagan wanted. “I just wanted to tell you that what [Shultz] told you had my approval,” Reagan said (p. 351).
Haig claims that after his departure, Reagan returned to his “original concepts.” Whether or not this is true, we must try to evaluate these concepts and his diplomacy.
Their outlines are clear enough. Haig appears as the poor man’s Kissinger: notions which in the General’s (unclaimed) model or tutor seemed to have a certain degree of subtlety reappear here in simplified form, translated, if you like, into something like basic English. Kissinger, like Haig, sees the whole world as, in essence, a stake in the struggle between the US and the USSR. He believes that “the West” must resist, early and strongly, Soviet “probes.” Both men are sharply critical of the “incremental” policies applied by the Democrats in Vietnam. Certainly Kissinger believed for a long time that the Soviets could, if they wanted, be of help to the US in Vietnam. But he has not suggested, as does Haig, that Moscow was fully responsible for the Vietnam war and that a threat of an invasion of North Vietnam accompanied by an ultimatum to Moscow might have been the solution (p. 119).
Kissinger has written about the Soviet responsibility for actions by their clients, comparing it with that of people who, by throwing stones, provoke landslides. For Haig, the Soviets are the landslide. This saves him from having to pay too much attention to local situations. His chief concerns were the preservation of Western unity in Europe (hence his reluctance to penalize the allies even though he deplored their pipeline deal with Moscow) and the formation of an anti-Soviet “strategic consensus” in Asia (hence his impatience with Reagan’s concern for Taiwan) as well as in the Middle East. Concentrating on the Palestinian issue was for him a “distraction,” especially since the PLO was a Soviet client.
We are once more in the simple universe of “geopolitics.” In Central America, what matters for Haig is Soviet and, above all, Cuban intervention. The reader who looks for some analysis of domestic conditions in places like EI Salvador, or Nicaragua, will waste his time, and if Haig’s analysis is blunt, his remedies are blunter. Moscow must exert control on Cuba, or else the US will do so by “bringing the overwhelming economic strength and political influence of the United States, together with the reality of its military power, to bear on Cuba in order to treat the problem at its source” (p. 129). In this way the US would avoid the tragedy of Vietnam, by which Haig meant the attempt to localize the conflict. In Nicaragua, the US would “cut off all aid, but…do other things as well” (p. 100). Morocco had to receive arms in view of Soviet support for King Hassan’s foes, the Polisario insurgents in the Western Sahara.
Needless to say, the neglect of local realities had a price. The attempt to form a “strategic consensus” against the Soviet Union in the Middle East provoked much discontent both in Israel, when the US decided to sell AWACS to the Saudis, and in Saudi Arabia, when the US tried to put restrictions on that sale. The administration’s agreement on strategic cooperation with Israel was suspended when Israel acted not as a “strategic asset” of the US but as a power determined to impose its will on its Arab neighbors by annexing the Golan Heights. If the insurgents still fight in EI Salvador it isn’t only because we didn’t “go to the source” in Cuba, but because we didn’t go to the source of discontent in EI Salvador, whose government’s record of social reform and whose armed forces’ record on human rights do not appear to be of serious concern to Haig.
Haig’s sympathy for the military and indifference to human rights also make him sound like a cartoon version of Kissinger. He talks of the dramatic improvement of the Argentinian junta’s record on human rights once the US stopped criticizing it. He describes the military establishment in EI Salvador as the “guarantor of a democratic solution” there (p. 126) and presents the coup that killed Allende in Chile as a kind of gallant reply by the military to the call of their wives, who had “appealed to their spouses to save the country from dictatorship” (p. 45). Concern for the survival of the military regime in Argentina explains why Haig, during the Falklands crisis, first tried so hard to negotiate a settlement. Disgusted by the junta’s machismo and clumsiness, he nevertheless believes that “the world ought to have been happy enough to see [Galtieri] survive and guide Argentina back to democratic civilian rule” (p. 278).
Kissinger had railed against the Carter administration’s failure to support and save the Shah of Iran, and to resist adequately the Soviets’ “geopolitical onslaught.” We find many hyperbolic references to these events here. Haig talks about “the Carter experiment in obsequiousness” (p. 29), about how “the former leadership of my country had failed Sadat” (p. 323)—by letting the Shah fall, not by letting the autonomy talks planned at Camp David fail. In one important matter, Haig went way beyond Kissinger’s policy and indeed helped to bury it. Kissinger had wanted a complex policy aimed at producing Soviet “good behavior” through a mix of resistance and cooperation. Haig wanted good behavior first. “At this early stage,” he writes, “there was nothing substantive to talk about, nothing to negotiate, until the USSR began to demonstrate its willingness to behave like a responsible power” (p. 105). “The time was not right to give the Soviets something they wanted as passionately as they wanted a treaty on strategic arms” (p. 46)—an extravagant statement, which assumes that arms control is a favor we perform for Moscow. Clearly détente was dead. One arms deal appeared possible, for a brief moment, the famous one concocted by Paul Nitze and his Soviet counterpart in their “walk in the woods.” Haig denounces it as having worked “against our purposes” (p. 232). Even after the US abandoned its neutrality in the Falklands affair, i.e., after the failure of Haig’s mediation, he remained concerned above all with avoiding the spread of Soviet influence in Latin America, and was relieved when his emissary obtained a promise that the junta, in its last moments, would not turn to Moscow.
Haig tells us more about his world view than about his policies. The account of Haig’s role during the Falklands war by the British ambassador in Washington, the shrewd and subtle Sir Nicholas Henderson (in The Economist of November 12, 1983) is fuller than Haig’s own. As for Haig’s chapter on the war in Lebanon, it is remarkably shallow. Again, Lebanon’s internal complexities are ignored, the advantages of military power exaggerated. He points to all the warnings delivered to the Israeli government against an invasion, except in case of an “internationally recognized provocation.” But he makes it clear that the Israelis had multiplied their own warnings that a move was imminent, that Sharon had, late in May 1982, in Washington, unveiled the scope of his invasion plans. Haig’s conclusion that the US “would probably not be able to stop Israel from attacking” (p. 330) seems disingenuous. If the US had wanted to stop Israel it had the means at its disposal to try to do so before or immediately after the attack. The Israeli army was using American equipment.
The formula Haig says he used, “If you move, you move alone” (p. 326), happened to be the one President Johnson used in May 1967, shortly before Israel’s attack on Egypt, when Abba Eban had come to test the mood in Washington. Eban and Sharon both understood the difference between “You’re on your own” and “Don’t move at all.” The failure of the US to intervene, and its veto of a UN resolution asking for sanctions, encouraged Sharon to push farther, and to attack the Syrians. The charges to this effect by the Israeli journalist Ze’ev Schiff (in Foreign Policy, Spring 1983) aren’t refuted here.
Although Haig does not say so, he probably saw in the Israeli invasion an opportunity to achieve what had been his goal since the previous summer: a restoration of Lebanese sovereignty, with a strong central government and the withdrawal of all foreign forces—Israeli, but above all PLO and Syrian. Throughout his last weeks in office, he remained convinced that only strong Israeli military pressure could lead to such an outcome. He believes that a “breakthrough” had been nearly achieved, thanks to this pressure, just before he was dismissed in June 1982, but the evidence he gives is flimsy.
Even Habib, on the spot, had come to believe that Israel’s bombardment of Beirut was making the establishment of a Lebanese government impossible. American policy was in a trap: the objectives sought by the Israelis who had planned the war could be reached only, if at all, by more fighting: an invasion of Beirut, a battle with the main Syrian forces, a decisive Phalangist victory over Moslem Lebanese factions. But this was a prospect that impelled even the moderate Arab states to close ranks with Syria and the PLO, and to ask the US to stop Israel. The notion of an anti-Soviet (and anti-PLO) “consensus” did not survive the reality of Israeli violence and the prospect of a Phalangist Lebanon under Israeli protection.
With Weinberger comparing Israel and Argentina, Reagan angry at Begin and eager to avoid a battle in Beirut, and a new secretary of state concerned with “the Palestinian people,” Haig’s policy was reversed, not, as he sees it, on the verge of its success, but because it could not succeed. Just how unreal his thinking on this question had become is shown by his scheme, in May 1982, for calling a conference including the countries making up the UN force in southern Lebanon as well as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the US, and Syria—but not Israel and the PLO.
His plans for mediation in the Falklands were less bizarre but were also an attempt to save something of the “anti-Soviet consensus” by preventing a war between two anti-Soviet nations—one old ally, one new friend. This involved some acrobatics: telling the British that the US would not behave as it did during the Suez crisis, when Washington condemned London (of course in that case London had first used force) yet avoiding outright condemnation of Argentina’s invasion in order to be able to play broker. This may well have only confused and encouraged the junta. In any case, between the Argentinians, who always reverted to a demand for sovereignty, and British determination to protect the Falklanders’ right to choose their fate, there wasn’t much chance of success.
Nor is it easy to see how Haig’s policy for Central America would have worked, if it had been adopted. At worst it would have entailed a risk of war with Cuba and of confrontation with Moscow. A thorough blockade of the island would have been an act of war. While Moscow may have been willing to keep some distance from Cuba’s activities in Central America, it could hardly have left Castro to face alone “the geostrategic assets available to” the US (p. 129). In any case, such a blockade, and the reinforcement of American armed units in the Central American region, would probably not have sufficed to put an end to “subversion” in EI Salvador. What Haig says he never envisaged, the landing of Marines in Central America, would then have become necessary to accomplish his goals.
Thus what “mortally handicapped” his action was not his lack of “access” to Reagan or the peculiarities of Reagan’s methods: it was the inadequacy, often recklessness, of his own view of the world and of the policies he pursued or recommended.
Reagan selected Haig as his secretary of state because he respected Haig’s experience. He had appreciated Haig’s criticism of SALT II, and the two men shared both a diagnosis of world affairs that put the spotlight on the “evil Empire” and a prescription that stressed American strength. Both believed that the world thirsted for American leadership.
Trouble developed, however, for several reasons. One was the misunderstanding about who was to be in charge. Ideological conformity did not prevent fierce personal rivalries, and they often degenerated into disputes over policy. Then there was Reagan’s concern with domestic opinion. He seems to have believed that building up “strength” would make a real foreign policy unnecessary: if you are mighty, nobody will quarrel with you, and the electorate will be appropriately grateful. Reagan behaved as if he were aware both of the old French colonial notion of displaying force in order not to have to use it, and of Mitterrand’s 1981 slogan “la force tranquille.” Palpable acts of war, by the US, or by an ally—England or Israel—have been highly unwelcome to Reagan, except in tiny Grenada. Haig, however, wanted to act as if the “Vietnam syndrome” had been over-come—Vietnam and Watergate, he writes, are “ubiquitous agents of social corrosion” (p. 139). Reagan and his advisers had their ears to the American ground; they wished the world would be quiet.
Finally, insofar as the expectation of being left in peace and respected by foe and friend alike turned out to be false, the administration had, once again, to improvise policies, region by region, and it is here that the sharpest disputes developed about tactics and even about goals. For this unexpected terrain, there was no road map. Thus the administration had, after all, to resume arms control talks, under pressure from the American public and the European allies. But were they meant to succeed, or to fail? In the Middle East, who was the best “strategic asset,” Israel under Begin and Sharon, or the moderate Arabs who felt threatened by both men? Should the administration minimize or stress the importance of the threat to American “security” in Central America; and if it stressed it, how far should it go in combatting it? How loudly should it proclaim American “leadership,” and how much should it, on the contrary, accommodate America’s allies? What should it do if “constructive engagement” in southern Africa succeeds mainly in strengthening the South African government, and therefore in increasing the prospects for long-term instability in this area? How much should the administration let its well-known hostility to the intervention of governments and international organizations in international economic affairs cripple attempts to solve the colossal issue of the third world’s debt?
The original design was too vague and woolly to provide answers. The policy apparatus was too clumsy to produce good ones. And so we have reached a quite extraordinary stage. Procedurally, after Haig, some changes were made: there was no more vicar and we hear now mainly of the President’s policies. With Clark gone and Shultz complaisant, decisions emerge from the Russian roulette of shifting coalitions among members of the “team.” In the substance of foreign policy, however, after almost four years, the administration can claim one victory: Grenada, and one negative, if highly publicized, success: the partial straightening of a tangle over Taiwan that was of its own making. Everything else has failed. There is no policy toward the Soviet Union; our allies remain dubious about our intentions and strategy; the wars in Central America go on with deepening American involvement. In the Middle East, after the fiasco of Haig’s approach, two radically different policies have failed in turn: the Reagan plan and the policy that concentrated on Lebanon after its collapse. The plan died because the internal and external costs of getting Jordan and the PLO to endorse it—a suspension of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Israeli agreement to leave Lebanon—were deemed too high by Washington. When US diplomacy finally returned to Lebanon, it ignored the existence and resourcefulness of the Syrians, underestimated the exhaustion of the Israelis, and overestimated the prospects of the Gemayel government.
And yet Reagan’s policies appear to be popular. He has shown much skill at shifting the blame for failures and at seeming to satisfy popular demands both for a show of strength and for avoiding a war in which Americans will be killed. In Lebanon, what mattered to the public was a quick exit, not protracted involvement. However, a second Reagan administration will have to take up practically every issue once again, for everything has been postponed, nothing has been resolved. Reagan will, once more, face the choice Haig describes: either move according to his militant rhetoric, with all the dangers involved, especially in the Middle East, Central America, and the arms race; or else continue to put first the claims of domestic popularity. But will a secondterm president feel he needs to court the public quite so much? Or will he, even more than before, concentrate on his mission of domestic economic and social transformation? This is one of the mysteries of the current campaign. Do we face four more years of improvised procrastination in foreign affairs or four years in which Reagan will seriously try to impose his orthodoxy on the rest of the world? I doubt the US can afford either prospect.
May 31, 1984