U.S.A.

Once more into a public fray

Michael Posner November 16 1981
U.S.A.

Once more into a public fray

Michael Posner November 16 1981

Once more into a public fray

U.S.A.

Michael Posner

The article appeared in its customary place, opposite the Peanuts cartoon in The Washington Post. In it, columnist Jack Anderson, scourge of political secret keepers, disclosed that he had in fact written another piece saying that Alexander Haig had one foot on a banana peel and would soon be out the door as secretary of state. That unpublished column, leaked in advance to the White House, elicited two weekend calls from Haig and another from the president himself at Camp David.

Plainly angry but still in control, Haig talked for nearly an hour about a “guerrilla campaign” to oust him from the administration. The “mind-boggling” campaign, he charged, was being waged by a senior White House official and was undermining his ability to conduct American foreign policy. In short, Haig said, the president was being sabotaged by people on his own staff. The state department confirmed Haig’s charges after the Anderson column ap-

peared in print, igniting a series of bizarre rumors.

For students of American policy, this was surely a case of déjà vu. Haig has been a focus of controversy since the opening hours of the Reagan administration, when he apparently presented for the president’s signature a plan for assuming control of the foreign policy apparatus. There have also been indications of Haig squabbling for turf with National Security Adviser Richard Allen, White House Chief of Staff James Baker, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger (over NATO policies), Budget Director David Stockman (over foreign aid subsidies) and trade representative Bill Brock (over auto imports).

Haig is hardly the first secretary of state to feel threatened by White House aides. Under Jimmy Carter, both Cyrus Vance and Ed Muskie were frequently the target of then national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s sniper fire. Before that, Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, William Rogers, was constantly undermined by Henry Kissinger. But the current furore is surprising

because the Reagan administration officially downgraded the profile of the national security adviser, making him subordinate—on paper at least—to the state department.

It is also distinguished by its painfully public character. In choosing to go to the press with his grievances, Haig was effectively forcing Reagan to intervene and impose a ceasefire, with further declarations of support for Haig’s performance. That is precisely what Reagan did last week, inviting Haig and Allen to the Oval Office for a private one-hour chat, and expressing strong support for each of them.

Inevitably, the session with Allen invited speculation that he was Haig’s particular nemesis. But Allen strenuously denied it—“bring on the lie-detectors,” he cried—and Haig himself publicly absolved him of blame. Haig also cleared James Baker after a private phone conversation. But those verdicts left much of official Washington feverish with speculation. Was it Ed Meese, the president’s counsellor, who was designing Haig’s demise? Or was it George Bush—waiting patiently for his presidential birthright to be certified— who saw in Haig a dangerous adversary? Was the plot a group effort, without a principal architect? Or was it, as some suggested, a figment of Haig’s fertile imagination, a paranoia induced by his continued association with Richard Nixon? Washington’s gossip boutiques were doing fast business in all of these product lines.

What remained after the stores closed was the impression of a secretary of state who does not in fact have the confidence of his president nor the trust—and this is perhaps more critical—of men who are closer to Ronald Reagan than Haig himself. Even as the president was pronouncing the affair complet, Caspar Weinberger was on Capitol Hill telling a congressional committee it was not NATO policy—as Haig had suggested one day earlier—to fire a nuclear warning shot at the Soviet Union if Moscow started a conventional war in Europe. That sharp contradiction forced the White House into another damage control operation, in which both Haig and Weinberger were declared accurate—Haig, because NATO had once considered such an option; Weinberger, because the option was not now NATO policy.

At week’s end, as the administration struggled to put the latest embarrassment behind it, the consensus view was that the Haig-White House truce would not endure indefinitely. At some point, observers believe, a decisive battle will be fought, one that will either make Alexander Haig the true chief of U.S. foreign policy or—as seems more likely— result in his discreet leave-taking.