Haig speaks back

Keith Kyle

  • Caveat by Alexander Haig
    Weidenfeld, 367 pp, £12.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 297 78384 X

Considering how essential one might suppose it to be that the President who is in charge of American foreign policy and the Secretary of State who heads the department which specialises in it should not only get on well but be able, under the pressure of competing crises, to operate in almost telepathic harmony with one another, it is remarkable how seldom a new President’s choice of his senior cabinet member is made on more than casual acquaintance. It is well-known that John F. Kennedy met Dean Rusk for the first time when he interviewed him for the job: Reagan and Haig had seen each other three times before the Election of 1980 but on only one of these occasions, shortly before Reagan’s nomination, had there been anything that might be described as a talk. Then they traded political clichés and thought that they were at one except over conscription (Haig was for, Reagan against); and Haig went away with the comforting impression that Reagan was a genuinely ‘nice guy’ who had spoken to him as if he had really liked him. In Haig’s book there are periodic references to this disarming quality, which gradually comes to seem rather sinister. ‘Because of habitual courtesy,’ Haig says of Reagan at one point, ‘it is at times difficult to know when he is agreeing or disagreeing, approving or disapproving.’

One piece of evidence for the superficiality of that pre-election talk must be the surprise Haig felt when he later discovered that Reagan actually believed in the antiquated right-wing view of China which had been ascribed to him. ‘The President himself was slow, if not unable, to see merit in my views. At first, I thought this was because he did not fully understand my arguments, but in the end I came to believe that, like most of his trusted advisers, he simply did not agree with me. More than any other thing that happened in the 18 months that I was Secretary of State the China question convinced me that Reagan’s world view was indeed different from my own and that I could not serve him and my convictions at the same time.’ What, it might be asked, did Reagan expect? He had picked his Secretary of State from among the small group of men who had made the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger foreign policy. Such a person could hardly be expected to accommodate himself to the atavism of the Radical Right.

Haig must have thought that the situation was tailor-made for him. Under Nixon’s Presidency he had become Kissinger’s indispensable deputy, channelling his paperwork for him, guarding his rear, fighting his bureaucratic battles and even taking his share of negotiating missions. He had seen how the making of foreign policy could be diverted from the State Department and thought he knew how to prevent that happening. He was Nixon’s Chief of Staff during the last pathetic weeks of Watergate and had had a successful tour as SACEUR which had commended him to America’s European allies as a man who had the root of the matter in him. As a diplomatist and a four-star general, he counted as an expert in the fields of foreign policy and security in an Administration that was much lacking in those branches of expertise. The new President reputedly had everything to learn about international affairs, a strong disposition to give priority to domestic policy and a laid-back approach to the Presidency generally: so that it was natural for Haig to suppose that he would be the one to take the weight of the world on his broad shoulders. The trouble was that the Reagan concept of the Presidency involved the total management of his time, and of access to him, by a small group of trusted advisers, whose notion of Presidential priority for domestic affairs did not include the idea of someone else bestriding the world, especially if that someone was a hold-over from the Nixon-Ford era.

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