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.

Haig’s demands on the President’s attention were, as he explains it, not extravagant: just one hour alone with Reagan per week. But even this he was never able to achieve. He was, he claims, mortally handicapped by his lack of access. ‘Not knowing his methods, not understanding his system of thought, not having the opportunity of discussing policy in detail with him, I had to proceed on the assumption that our principles and our instincts were roughly the same.’ Throughout his career Haig had shown himself brilliantly capable of exploiting a close relationship with a chief. Now the possibility of that sort of contact was cut off. The irony of his situation was that both he and most outside commentators had assumed that his main problem would lie with the National Security Council Adviser, Richard Allen. Under Nixon, and again under Carter, rivalry between the National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State had resulted in the departure of the latter. Haig was determined to block any repetition of the ruthless way he had seen Secretary Rogers cut out of the chain of command by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Reagan claimed to have met the point by downgrading Allen’s post. But this only meant that Allen had to report to the President through his chief adviser Ed Meese, thus depriving the foreign policy community of any direct access at all. Haig complains that when he wanted to communicate with Reagan through Allen, ‘I was petitioning for access to the Oval Office to a man who himself had no access.’

The difficulty lay in part in Haig’s temperament. Because he had built his reputation in staff jobs it was assumed that he would make a good team player. But he was not a comfortable person to be with. According to one writer, he brought a ‘ferocious intensity’ to each and every subject which he addressed; men wilted under the Haig crouch and the Haig glare; he appeared larger than life in an Administration that was not overflowing with such personalities. His White House experience made him ultra-sensitive to any sign of that being done unto him which he had done unto others. He never hesitated to show his disdain for those who he felt deserved it, especially the Secretary of Defence, Cap Weinberger, here the target for his greatest scorn. Weinberger, a Californian and a political associate of the President’s, had, in Haig’s opinion, a tendency to blurt out locker-room opinions in the guise of policy. ‘It is not easy,’ Haig says, ‘to convince other governments or the public that the minister of defence of a superpower is talking off the top of his head on issues of war and peace.’ Haig is sufficiently loyal to his President not to mention that Reagan was far more guilty of the same offence, ad-libbing cheerfully to the press about limited nuclear war in Europe, and sufficiently loyal to himself not to add that, with all his experience, he, too, contributed to the epidemic of indiscretion by blurting out a reference to plans for firing a demonstration nuclear shot in the face of Soviet conventional attack. This ragged combination of remarks suggested among America’s allies an Administration as rackety as its predecessor and much more alarming.

Haig had a knack for coining memorable phrases which sounded slightly absurd and off-key and which tended to turn back on him to do him damage. Journalists collected them and called them ‘Haigspeak’. ‘Caveat’ in Haigspeak comes from ‘And so I caveat it that way’ – its use in the title of this book speaks well for his sense of humour. The most celebrated – and by his reckoning the most devastating – example came out when in the course of his first press conference he described his role in the foreign policy field as that of ‘vicar’. The word, borrowed, it seems, from Paul Nitze thirty years before, appeared to claim either too much or too little. It suggested either its 13th-century meaning of ‘God’s representative on earth’ or the picture of a genial, slightly comic fellow in bicycle clips played by Miles Malleson. It caused people, as Haig says, either to chortle or to choke, and he ascribes to this unfortunate use of language the struggle for primacy between the White House staff and himself which is the theme of the book.

With their backgrounds in public relations Reagan’s handlers were expert at feeding their own versions of events into the press: Haig received news of how his performance in office was regarded in the White House by reading the morning paper. They had driven him to drafting his first letter of resignation within two months of taking office. Reagan calmed him down but told him that his colleagues complained of his ‘steamroller tactics’. The President declared publicly that Haig was ‘my primary adviser on foreign affairs’ and ‘the chief formulator and spokesman for foreign policy’: but he came no nearer to signing the order which Haig had prepared on Day One of the Presidency which would have translated these fine phrases into bureaucratic reality. Part of the trouble was that the issue on which the ‘steamroller tactics’ had been most noticed and most resented was one on which Haig insisted on being more hawkish than the Pentagon, more Reaganite than Reagan. From the moment he took office, the Secretary of State appeared to be obsessed with El Salvador and the need to bring what he called America’s geostrategic assets to bear on Cuba. Large fleets were assembled, exercises launched and major decisions demanded within ten days. ‘Traditional friends of the United States’ who claimed to have derived the impression from the Carter Administration that America had accepted the historical inevitability of Communism, and was looking for a means of accommodating herself to that reality, were to be shown in no uncertain terms that ‘the Carter experiment in obsequiousness’ was over. In this Haig must have thought that he would earn the total endorsement of his President, since Reagan had spoken during the campaign of retaliating in the Caribbean for Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. But this attempt to take right-wing rhetoric seriously and translate it into policy left Haig completely isolated. Reagan wanted no foreign policy in his first year, least of all a Reaganite one.

The impression of Haig as being slightly out of control was enhanced by an incident on 30 March 1981, the day the President was shot down in the streets of Washington. As soon as he got the news the Secretary of State moved into the White House, bawled out Secretary Weinberger for using the wrong acronym for describing the state of alert of the Armed Forces, and plunged into a live telecast to declare in a voice vibrating with emotion that ‘As of now I am in control here.’ This was intended to reassure the nation and the world, though it had the effect of ensuring that newspaper analysis of the events of the day would focus on Haig’s state of mind alongside the President’s health. The intensity of the official assurances that Haig had been ‘very steady’ during the whole crisis could scarcely have been more damaging.

It was of no help to him that he recognised what was being done to him – while probably exaggerating it. According to one knowledgeable observer of the Washington scene, ‘rather than attempting to exile Haig in 1981 the White House staff was trying to house-break him.’ But his frustrations kept breaking out into the public domain. Speaking to a Congressional Committee, he made no bones of his dismay at the announcement that Vice-President Bush was to head a special Crisis Management Team and he called up the columnist Jack Anderson on the telephone as early as November 1981 to complain about the ‘guerrilla war’ that was being waged against him from within the White House. As to the identity of his opponents, Haig still confesses his bafflement: ‘To me the White House was as mysterious as a ghost ship. You heard the creak of the rigging and the groan of the timbers and sometimes even glimpsed the crew on deck. But which of the crew had the helm? Was it Meese, was it Baker, was it someone else?’

The number of pugnacious disputations multiplied – with Eugene Rostow of the Arms Control Agency, with Jeane Kirkpatrick at the UN, with Richard Perle, the ultra-hardliner at the Pentagon. In January 1982, Reagan’s Californian friend William Clark, whom Haig had flattered himself that he had captured by accepting him for a year at the State Department as Deputy Secretary of State despite his total absence of qualifications, took over the job of National Security Adviser and Haig’s days effectively began to run out. It was a sign of how far he considered his position had deteriorated that when the Falklands crisis struck, and he decided to take on shuttle diplomacy between London and Buenos Aires, he told his wife that failure to prevent war would cost him his job. He was basically on Britain’s side, believed from the outset that Britain would fight and if she fought would certainly win, and feared that then General Galtieri would fall and his successor would be worse. He tried but failed to convince the General of these truths and came to regard Mrs Thatcher as ‘by far the strongest, the shrewdest and the most clear-sighted player in the game’.

The description of the last-minute initiative of the Peruvian President will be read with care to see what light it throws on the relationship between the Peruvian proposals and the sinking of the General Belgrano. Haig says that President Belaunde ‘gained acceptance in principle from both parties’, but it is not clear what that means and he does not elaborate. It does not help that this short paragraph appears to be full of mistakes. Apart from the three that are corrected in the list of errata enclosed with the book, the commander of the submarine Conqueror did not, as stated, sink the Belgrano on the strength of past rules of engagement but as the result of a specific amendment of those rules, and the Belgrano, whatever her ultimate intent, was not at that moment ‘steaming in a threatening manner towards the British fleet’.

To most people Haig’s mission might have looked like an honourable attempt to avert war. To people with no time or patience for Haig it seemed like a big piece of ‘grandstanding’ to upstage President Reagan’s trip to the Caribbean. Since the gamble failed to come off it was open season for the Secretary of State. When the President took off for a tour of European capitals including attendance at the Versailles economic summit, although Haig was present, crisis management officials in Washington were linked to the President by way of Clark, making it possible to short-circuit ‘the vicar’. The trip coincided with Israel’s invasion of the Lebanon: a situation which would in any case have put the mutual compatibility of President and Secretary of State to its severest test. By now it was inevitable that it should be found wanting. Reagan, provoked beyond endurance by Begin and fortified by his advisers, had agreed that his UN Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, should vote in favour of a resolution in the Security Council that was sharply hostile to Israeli policies. Haig, who habitually undermined anti-Israeli stands on grounds of strategic interest though he sometimes spoke quite bluntly to Begin, got the decision reversed and an American veto cast with minutes to spare, but at the cost of a stand-up row with Clark. When, back in Washington, Haig complained to the President in relentless and unwelcome detail about the way their proclaimed policy of balance, consistency and credibility had ended up as cacophony and incoherence, the President unexpectedly accepted a half-proffered resignation.

Alexander Haig has described all this in a lively book which yet does not, any more than did the author when in office, propose anything very original in the way of diplomatic strategy. But it has been noticeable how often – over China, over Central America, over Israel – the Reagan Administration has settled down after two years without Haig to policies which, for good or ill, bear a remarkable resemblance to the ones he was promoting.