Reagan's Pragmatist

Reagan's Pragmatist

Mini Teaser: Despite the questioning of specific actions and policies, it remains indisputable that a combination of the times and Shultz's own strength of character made him one of our most successful secretaries of state.

by Author(s): James Schlesinger

George P. Schultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Charles Scribner's and Sons, 1993).

This nation owes much to George Pratt Shultz for his six and one-half years service during the 1980s as secretary of state. Put simply, he was the right man in the right place at the right time. In the circumstances in which he was placed, his weaknesses were massively outweighed by his strengths--and by his services to the nation. Admittedly in other circumstances the outcome might have been different. Both the times and the other players surrounding Shultz served to enhance the value of his own remarkable strengths. These attributes are reflected in this huge and comprehensive memoir, which will serve as a veritable gold mine for historians in the future. Shultz is the first to acknowledge that his writings reflect his "own angle of view." While they are less consciously self-serving than most works of this genre, by expressing his conviction so forthrightly, Shultz reveals quite clearly not only that angle of view but its defects.

First let me address what is essential for understanding both these memoirs and Shultz's role in history--Shultz, the man. It, no doubt, is an exaggeration to state that "character is destiny"; nonetheless, for those who do not simply drift with the tide, character is the key to understanding why individuals performed as they did in the historical setting in which they were placed. In this respect Shultz was doubly fortunate: he was a man of strong character enhanced by the time in which served. Indeed everything about Shultz exudes strength. He is a man of great integrity--and, though a skillful tactician, not given to the little dishonesties that mark all too much of political life. He possesses, indeed is possessed by, a supreme self-confidence that borders on self-righteousness. He has immensely strong convictions and emotions. When frustrated--as he was with President Nixon's imposition of price controls in 1971--he can scarcely disguise his disappointment. The upshot is that Shultz tends to plow ahead, to stay the course. That is his method. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not.

Shultz devoted some of his academic years to serving as a labor arbitrator, and that background has served him well. He searches out the underlying needs of parties to a dispute--what they feel they must have, where they are prepared to yield. He is keenly observant, and an excellent listener, but not particularly good at theorizing. (If the truth be known he has very little use for theory.) His actions are governed by observing the facts, not by theories. No man that I know is better at summarizing a lengthy group discussion--in a manner that bends that summary toward supporting the conclusion he hopes will to emerge. In short, Shultz is the ultimate step-by-step negotiator--far better serving as the honest broker than as a long-range strategist.

I have suggested that Shultz was the right man at the right time. There are three reasons for this. First, he was perhaps the ideal man to work with Ronald Reagan. Low key, quietly persuasive, appropriately deferential, he fitted into the Reagan mood of general affability. Arriving in the wake of the "tempestuous" Al Haig, Shultz had a benign manner and a calming effect.

Second, Shultz was the man of common sense in a group whose principal members were driven primarily by ideology, and many of whom, quite simply, were not up to the job. In this mixture Shultz served as the leavening agent, in the most important matters, gradually leading his president along that path that the president intuitively preferred.

Third--and perhaps most important of all--it was the times! Shultz came along at that critical juncture of the Cold War at which Brezhnev gave way to Andropov and Chernenko, and then quickly to Gorbachev. Shultz, ever the keen observer of personalities and events, saw something that others failed to see: the Soviet Union was undergoing massive change. Shultz turned out to be the right man in that he was not burdened by the wisdom (and the inhibitions) of arms control theory, Sovietology, anticommunist ideology, and the like. He was thus inclined and reasonably well-equipped to engage in his own style of pragmatism.
By shucking off the accumulated wisdom of thirty-odd years of dealing with the Soviets, Shultz made remarkable and surprising progress toward a new relationship with the Soviets and ultimately the end of the Cold War. In so doing he distressed and infuriated some of his more hidebound colleagues within the administration--and worried many outside the administration, who were not in the same position to observe the changed tone in dealing with the Soviets. Never in thrall to theory or doctrine, Shultz facilitated change that would have come far more slowly had he not been there. Indeed, when the Bush administration, more cautious, more conventional, arrived with its stance of containment-plus, our receptiveness toward Gorbachev slowed down at what was a crucial moment of history.

Shultz's strength of conviction shines forth in these memoirs. It is an astonishingly candid document. He displays little charity or even understanding for those who oppose him--or who just take a different point of view. Though politely phrased he has limited respect for his senior colleagues. He despises and distrusts Bill Casey, scorns Judge Clark, and dislikes Cap Weinbergers's views and actions, if not Weinberger himself. Bud McFarlane is treated for the most part as an incompetent meddler. The CIA is untrustworthy and the Pentagon is recalcitrant. Those at a lower level do not fare much better. The clear exceptions to this tendency are Shultz's own subordinates, who, if they are not, like Thomas Enders, too independent, are strongly praised. Regrettably many of these characterizations are both persuasive and justified. The Reagan administration was not marked by either strength or discernment at the highest levels. For intellectual capacity one had to move down a level or two to the Paul Nitzes, Richard Perles, Richard Burts, and Fred Iklés--and even at this lower level truly talented individuals were not commonplace. Shultz's scorn for the president's staff, especially the staff of the National Security Council, seems quite justified. Yet no previous secretary of state has castigated the NSC staff so explicitly, so firmly, and so frequently.

On almost all subjects Shultz is prepared to follow the administration line. For example, he always spoke glowingly about Reaganomics, even though, as former budget director, he must have been keenly aware of the fiscal wreckage that flowed from the administration's generous tax policies combined with its unwillingness to take on the entitlement programs. The immense deficits that resulted lowered the national savings rate to the point that we had to borrow abroad to sustain a much reduced level of investment activity--and to suffer a much lowered rate of productivity growth. But Shultz was prepared to echo the administration line.

Similarly Shultz speaks almost rhapsodically about the Strategic Defense Initiative--though he did not know where it came from, initially raised many of the right questions, and was left to grapple with the consequences. The result was a set of incantations and meaningless catch phrases that defy comprehension. The SDI was to become a litmus test of loyalty to the administration, so that, for example, Brent Scowcroft is quickly passed over as a possible national security adviser, because "he had been critical of SDI." Nonetheless, though Shultz is willing to follow the administration on almost all substantive issues, he is wholly unprepared to follow it when it leads into a morass of unethical and possibly illegal behavior. As a result we have the most dramatic, if not the most significant, events of Shultz's tenure: his unwillingness to embrace or to serve as an apologist for the administration's under-the-table trafficking in arms with the so-called Iranian moderates.

Much is already known about this long-gathering storm, especially with the publications of the most salient excerpts of Shultz memoirs in Time magazine. Though in this instance Shultz violated the advice that he regularly tendered on substantive though not ethical issues--find out what the president really wants (such as "to rid the world of nuclear weapons") and try to carry out his wishes--the long-running drama was entirely to Shultz's credit. Shultz fulfilled the role of good cabinet officer: he tendered good advice and refused to lend himself to total folly in the name of supposed loyalty. Though he infuriated many of his colleagues by his refusal to participate in a cover up, and the first lady reportedly was calling for his head, Shultz came to embody an ethical tone that permitted the administration ultimately to move beyond the Iran-Contra scandal. Thus, Shultz's behavior probably saved the administration from itself in the short-run and unquestionably helped save its historical reputation in the long-run.

In so limited a space one can hardly touch upon the countless events and issues that occurred during nearly two presidential terms. There were numerous successes. One might start with the calming of our relations with our allies, which had been disrupted by an unseemly dispute over the proposed Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe. The squabble had erupted when the United States sought to prevent pipeline construction through extraterritorial reach, by requiring its overseas subsidiaries and licensees to break contracts. The Europeans, quite understandably, felt this to be not only bad policy, which was arguable, but a clear abuse of America's political and legal powers. Shultz managed to quiet the controversy and to restore a degree of harmony to the alliance.
Another dispute over a presidential visit to a German military cemetery at Bitburg was handled with equal diplomatic skill. The administration recognized that the importance of our German ally and of the NATO alliance transcended the domestic discontent that the visit aroused--and rose courageously to the challenge. More significantly, the administration pressed ahead with the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe despite widespread agitation against that essential action. Of similar importance, the sometimes ruffled U.S. relations with China and with Japan were placed on a reasonably stable basis. Indeed relations with Japan flourished during the Reagan years, perhaps to our longer-term cost in that both the Japanese and our ourselves were seduced into ignoring the deep-seated problems regarding trade that were to flare in subsequent years.

In other matters the results were somewhat more mixed. Shultz rightly takes some pride in the effectiveness with which the United States helped ease Ferdinand Marcos out of office. What he fails to develop, perhaps understandably, is that the U.S. role in the affair took place against the clear desire of President Reagan to support his old friend, President Marcos. It required a veritable conspiracy of senior officers within the Department of State to place Mr. Reagan in a position in which he ultimately had no alternative but to abandon Marcos. While Shultz does not for obvious reasons spell this out, it ill comports with his general homilies about finding out what the president wants to do and then attempting to carry out those wishes.

Grenada turned out to be a triumph of American political-military policy. The United States found--and seized--an opportunity to rid itself of a somewhat bizarre, quasi-Marxist nuisance in the Caribbean that had fallen under Cuban influence. Though one could spare some of the moralizing, the opportunity was effectively, not to say ruthlessly, exploited. We were also amazingly lucky in that a different disposition of Cuban anti-aircraft capabilities might have inflicted upon us a level of casualties that would have marred the triumph.

An interesting aspect of the Grenada affair is Shultz's consternation and irritation with Mrs. Thatcher and the British government for its failure strongly to support the American intervention. Shultz apparently feels that Mrs. Thatcher was under obligation to us for our support during the Falklands war. In this connection, however, he simply ignores such matters as residual British annoyance over the abuse of American power in the Soviet gas pipeline episode; the American unwillingness either to consult with or inform the British in advance, thereby embarrassing the prime minister and foreign minister in the House of Commons; the understandable British reservations under those circumstances of the United States invading a member of the Commonwealth; and quite possibly Mrs. Thatcher's genuine doubts regarding the propriety of the U.S. removing a government simply because it did not like it. This is but one example of Shultz's powerful emotions getting in the way of his objectivity.

Such emotional overreaction regarding allies was perhaps most dramatically, if not most disgracefully, displayed in the sanctions imposed on New Zealand for its unwillingness to receive nuclear-powered vessels in its ports after the Labor Party victory in 1984. The New Zealand prime minister hoped to coast by on the tacit understanding that had existed throughout the 1970s, when the United States quietly abided by local preferences. Instead the U.S. turned furiously on New Zealand, denounced it, imposed sanctions, and tore up the anzus Treaty. It was an astonishing performance. One might have concluded that little New Zealand threatened to bring down the entire alliance system of the Free World. The stand-up comics had a field day: democracy endangered by "New Zealand thugs." It was not America's finest hour. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the total absence of any reference to the New Zealand affair in these memoirs.
Less surprisingly, strong emotion played a continuing role in the Middle East. American fury, more understandably than in the New Zealand case, repeatedly shifted back and forth from the Israeli to the Arab side. Shultz had inherited a nasty conflict in Lebanon and sought, like others before him, to play the role of honest broker. Considerable effort was invested in negotiating the Israeli-Lebanese Agreement of May 17, 1983, according to which all foreign forces (including Syrian forces) would be withdrawn from Lebanon and the war would be terminated. On paper it appeared to be an immense accomplishment. However, it depended upon the willingness of Hafez Assad to withdraw his forces--in accordance with an agreement in which he had not participated and about which he felt inadequately consulted. Assad (as was predictable) refused to cooperate. The entire involvement turned into a shambles.

After the Phalange's slaughter of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, a small detachment of Marines had been redeployed to Beirut as part of a multilateral peacekeeping force. Over time the U.S. became increasingly identified as a party to the conflict, siding with the Maronites--and ultimately directing air and naval gun fire against the Druse and the Shiites. In October the Marine Barracks, which were inadequately protected, were blown up, and 241 Marines were killed. That led to an embarrassingly rapid withdrawal of the U.S. Marines--a climax to a long series of embarrassments.

Shultz, a strong advocate of persevering in Lebanon, quite sensibly asks: "What went wrong? Should U.S. forces have gone into Lebanon in the first place?....Was the May 17th Agreement a futile exercise?....Should we have used much greater military capabilities?" Those are the right questions. They should have been addressed a little earlier than they seemed to have been. This writer would conclude (as he did in 1983) that the United States should not send a token force in to a hostile region for symbolic reasons. In Lebanon it should have emulated President Eisenhower's 1958 action and dispatched a massive force. If the original mission is a modest one (peacekeeping), that mission should not be gradually altered to one of major (and hostile) participant without thorough review of the military deployment. And, finally, negotiations can rarely be crowned with success if major players, who are deeply involved, are ignored.
The unhappy events in Lebanon provided a backdrop to a continuing struggle over terrorism that pitted State versus Defense, with Shultz advocating greater and earlier use of force--and the Pentagon demurring. Shultz regularly made speeches advocating preemption based on positive intelligence. Weinberger issued his Principles. It is easy to poke fun at Weinberger's position, for it seemed to suggest that the United States should never use force unless there was a prior guarantee for continued public support of an engagement, which, of course, no one could provide. Nonetheless, his admonition of caution cannot so lightly be dismissed. The Israeli policies of preemption and tit-for-tat retaliation have not eliminated terrorism. The United States is scarcely in the position of Israel. To preempt frequently on the basis of "positive intelligence" would gradually erode both public and international support.

The difficulties in defining terrorism should also be noted. One must, at the outset, distinguish between civilian and military targets. The Israelis habitually have a rather broadbrush definition of terrorism, and Shultz has tended to follow them. We have regularly described the bombing of the Marine Barracks as an act of terrorism. But from the standpoint of Hezbollah, it was an act of war against a hostile military force (against which there had been regular prior attacks.) Such an act of war in their view was akin to the actions against Grenada or Libya that we felt quite justified in taking. Indeed Hezbollah might well conclude that its own "military" action was even more successful than the American action against Libya, because the Americans withdrew and caused no further trouble.

In the summer of 1985, TWA 847 had been hijacked and moved to Beirut. In the fall of 1985 terrorists seized the Achille Lauro. Shultz continued his effort to battle terrorism. But he had trouble bringing the rest of the administration along. From time to time, when Shultz insisted, the White House would issue a supporting statement to the effect that the United States would not yield to terrorists. Shultz believed he had the president's support. But whether that was real support or merely easy rhetoric remained an open question. It should be noted that this was the first time frame in which the White House initiated its arms-for-hostages negotiations with Iran. Within the terrorist network the regular declamations of the United States, coming from Shultz and others, that we would never yield to terrorists' must have had an increasingly entertaining--and reassuring--sound.

Let us turn finally to what is Shultz's greatest glory: the revision of our relations with the Soviet Union. One can scarcely praise Shultz highly enough for this accomplishment, for he, keenly observant and a good listener, saw something in the Soviet Union long before others did. Indeed, others continued to extrapolate the past and to utter their baleful prophecies, and to deride Shultz in the process. Shultz was fortunate, no doubt, that he came along in the Age of Gorbachev rather than the Age of Brezhnev. Yet, without Shultz we would have continued to grapple with the Soviet Threat, after it had begun to subside, and "the evil empire," long after the evil had begun to ebb. Since the course he advocated, even with the backing of the president, was not widely popular within the administration or within the prime constituency groups of the Republican Party (although it had wider support in the general public), Shultz deserves high marks for courage--a virtue that he possesses in abundance. Shultz helped nurse the budding relationships--in personal encounters, at summits, and in-between summits. He got to know Shevardnadze, as well as Gorbachev. He recognized that they were somehow "different" from their predecessors.

Yet, despite this dramatically altered relationship, we were unable quickly to capitalize upon it. Major arms control agreements, including the long-desired reduction in strategic arms, were long delayed and had to await the coming of the Bush administration. The principal reason lay in the president's and administration's obsession with the Strategic Defense Initiative. This obsession reached its culmination at the ill-prepared and ill-executed summit at Reyjkavik, which could have been the administration's crowning achievement, but turned out to be a near-disaster. Shultz argues vehemently that Reyjkavik was misunderstood and that, contrary to the usual impressions, it was a great achievement. To be sure, he is partly right. Gorbachev indeed was prepared significantly to reduce strategic weapons. It was a breakthrough. The failure lies in that the United States forfeited an opportunity, because it became fixated on the wrong objectives and failed properly to respond to Gorbachev's offer.

The president, who had long wanted (with Shultz's apparent support) to "rid the world of nuclear weapons" was apparently ready to accept the elimination of all strategic weapons. That position had not even been broached to our European allies, who for almost four decades had relied upon America's nuclear might to redress the imbalance in conventional forces. Their subsequent dismay, when the substance of Reyjkavik became public knowledge, can readily be imagined--despite Shultz's effort to suggest that they had a favorable reaction. Nor had our position been discussed with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president of the United States was engaged in brainstorming and wish-fulfillment in a critical negotiation.

The final American position called for the elimination of all ballistic missiles in two tranches over a ten-year period. Meanwhile all anti-ballistic missile research permitted under the Treaty would continue. After ten years either side could deploy ABM defenses. Gorbachev, by contrast, insisted that any ABM research be confined to the laboratory. And on that minor difference the negotiations fell apart.

Thus, the paradoxical American position was ironically that deployment of ABM defenses after the elimination of ballistic missiles was so important that research should not be inhibited at all. (The mark of fanaticism, it has been said, is to redouble one's efforts, as one loses sight of one's objective.) The crucial need for ABM defenses after ballistic missiles have been eliminated is not obvious. Moreover, the deployment of ballistic missiles was the basis of the relative invulnerability of both sets of strategic forces. Their elimination would have restored the vulnerability of the U.S. deterrent. The U.S. would, once again, have been dependent upon the survival of a handful of bomber bases. When the negotiations collapsed, the defense community in the west, and indeed, most of the world, breathed a sigh of relief. Paradoxically SDI had served the country well; it had prevented a strategic arms debacle. So much for presidential free-wheeling without extended prior preparation.

One still shudders at the workings and the substance of the Reyjkavik summit. Why Shultz at this late date should feel obliged to defend it defies the imagination. With the passage of time, the absurdity of the American position becomes more evident. As a military system, in contrast to a mode of pressuring the Soviets, SDI can most charitably be described as a presidential "vision." There was then scant knowledge regarding possible technologies, potential costs, or anything other than slogans regarding its strategic role--though fortunately the Soviets did not realize how tentative that vision was. As of 1993--three years from when even the Soviets would have permitted deployment--we are still far from a workable system--and, perhaps regrettably, we have largely abandoned research for a space-based system. Ronald Reagan's grand vision of "ridding the world of nuclear weapons" seems as unachievable and as dangerous as ever. Why Shultz continues to labor in support of that will-o'-the-wisp remains a mystery.

Yet, despite the questioning of specific actions and policies, it remains indisputable that a combination of the times and Shultz's own strength of character made him one of our most successful secretaries of state. Many things he got right; some things he probably got wrong. Nonetheless, like the hedgehog of "The Hedgehog and the Fox" he "understood one great thing"--the fundamental change in U.S.-Soviet relations. He got that right and for that this nation will be forever in his debt.

Essay Types: Book Review