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George Shultz, The Nowhere Man

Shultz is a repairman, but we need a strategist.

George Shultz sits in front of two microphones before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2000.
MARIO TAMA/AFP via Getty Images
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State George Schultz testifies before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee February 29,2000 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Daunting foreign policy challenges confront the United States during the Reagan era. But there are also delicious opportunities for leaders with imagination and a sense of strategy—if such leaders we only had. The Soviet Union has achieved military parity with the United States, its leadership is in transition, and new technologies threaten traditional patterns of both nuclear deterrence and arms control. It is a moment for creative superpower diplomacy. At the same time, as Europe becomes “Europeanized”—increasingly preoccupied with its own identity and its relationship to the East—American leaders need to work on restructuring Atlantic relationships. The time also has been right for creative movement in the Middle East, capitalizing on the Camp David precedent, Israel’s decimation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, ebbing Soviet influence, and the threats presented by Islamic fanaticism and Israel’s steady absorption of the West Bank.

We also need to find a way to cope with—ideally, to co-opt—revolutionary rage in Central America before it produces more hostile regimes beneath our southern border. The debt crisis of the poor countries, combined with the prolonged recession in the developed world, suggests the need for a new economic order of some sort, or at least for new thinking about international monetary and fiscal problems. Above all, American leaders need to reestablish an American consensus about foreign policy based on the reality that the era of isolationism is unalterably over, and that economically, politically, and militarily, we are inextricably involved with the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, in 1980 America elected a President with firm moral views but limited international expertise. He, in turn, vested top foreign policy authority in figures whose ignorance matched his own—notably Caspar Weinberger, the former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, whom Reagan made Secretary of Defense, and William Clark, the former California Supreme Court judge whom Reagan made White House National Security Adviser. The one exception was Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who, despite his other faults, was a strategist. He was an alliance man who understood the need to support friends such as the Israelis and the Europeans before going on to parley with neutrals and adversaries. He tried to fashion a strategic consensus between Israel and moderate Arab states in the Mideast. He wanted to pressure Cuba as the means of halting revolution in Central America. Apparently Haig intended to do some back-channel negotiating with the Soviet Union. Whether his strategies would have worked we will never know, because his personality—tortured, snarling, self-promoting—led him into tantrums and turf fights with the White House, and last July he was sacked. Even though he was supposedly a star Washington maneuverer, Haig forgot the first rule of back-room bureaucratic politics: maintain your base with the Boss.

Haig’s departure had some policy causes and some policy consequences. Until his successor could take charge, the Clark-Weinberger foreign policy would be ascendant. Weinberger tends to believe that America’s future in the Middle East lies with the Arabs, not with Israel. Both he and Clark counsel pressure on the European allies rather than conciliation as the means of maintaining Western solidarity against the Soviets. Both encourage President Reagan’s proclivity for stark rhetoric and for thinking that power is primarily a function of a nation’s military budget. Haig’s successor, George Shultz, has been Secretary of State for nine months now, and his reviews are mixed. It is almost universally agreed that he is intelligent, that he is a man of solid character and moderate policy views, and that he is a skilled mediator. His mediating and negotiating skills arc being tested right now as he tries to arrange an lsraeli troop withdrawal agreement in Lebanon and to revive his and President Reagan’s Mideast peace plan. At the same time, Shultz is being criticized in the press by fellow Administration officials and by foreigners as lacking forcefulness, communicative talent, and imagination. And his main deficiency could be more serious yet; he may not know much about what he is doing. 

It is reassuring, though, to listen to people talk about George Shultz’s personality. He comes through sounding something like George Washington—strong, solid, dependable, deliberate, but also murky, distant, hard to grasp, even cold. One good profile of him, by Daniel Southerland of The Christian Science Monitor, terms Shultz “inscrutable...almost Japanese.” A State Department subordinate says 

he is a very intelligent man with a very strong character. He is the mirror image of Haig. For example, in dealing with the Chinese. The Chinese are very threatening people. They are always telling us that it’s too bad we can’t have improved relations. They mean that if we want improved relations, we have to give them everything they want, which means that they should have their way with Taiwan. Well, Haig’s whole reflex in dealing with a threat was to cringe. Shultz’s is to stiffen. He doesn’t scare easily. He doesn’t weaken. Haig spoke loudly, but was loaded with self-doubt. Shultz speaks softly and is quite strong.

What Haig fatally forgot about bureaucratic maneuvering, Shultz practices as a master. “He has the President’s total confidence,” says a top White House aide. Shultz defers to Reagan, always backs him up in conversations with subordinates, and never contradicts him when others are present. “The whole secret of this Administration,” says one official, “is that the President is not to be humiliated. Whoever does that is dead. George Shultz never does it.” Unlike Reagan, Weinberger, and Clark, Shultz is no Californian—”He’s a big-time Eastern establishment mogul who moved West,” a fellow Cabinet officer says—but he understands the laid-back California style of the Reagan entourage in a way that Haig never did. “Those Californians—Meese, Reagan, Clark, and Weinberger—are all really nice to each other,” according to one non-Californian. “Haig wasn’t nice to anybody.”

Shultz tends to be admired and respected by his subordinates at State, partly because he is so different from Haig—”the guerrilla wars are over now,” one of them said—and partly because Shultz listens to them. “There is an astounding inner serenity to him,” one of them said.

He isn’t anxious or trying to prove himself. He seems to have certain very strong beliefs—in this system of government, in free trade and open markets. He is a conservative with a small c, unlike some other people in this Administration, who are capital C. He also has a more optimistic view of the situation of the United States, and maybe of the human condition, than Henry Kissinger. He thinks there are irreconcilable conflicts between us and the Soviets, for example, but he thinks the United States has lots of strengths to bring to the competition and that the differences can be managed and tensions controlled.

Actually Shultz activates a certain tendency for others to impute their own views to him. This may grow out of his legendary ability to listen closely to what others tell him, question them actively, but give little of his own views back. He is not universally loved. One former aide said, “He’s extraordinarily cold, and if you disagree with him, he doesn’t like it. Those beady eyes get beadier and beadier. It’s interesting, too, that he never praises in private, only in public, where it reflects well on him, too.” Shultz is regarded as a strong manager of the State Department in the sense that he knows what his top subordinates are doing, although he has not shaken up the place since taking over from Haig. He installed his protege Kenneth Dam, Provost of the University of Chicago, as No. 2 man, replacing career diplomat Walter Stoessel. He transferred Haig’s smart young policy planning chief, Paul D. Wolfowitz, to be Assistant Secretary of State for Asia, and restructured the policy planning staff into a collegial think tank which includes former Kissinger assistant Peter Rodman and academician Robert Osgood operating under economist Stephen Bosworth. He replaced Haig’s press spokesman, Dean Fischer, with John Hughes, former editor of The Christian Science Monitor. But all other major bureaus—Europe, Latin America, Africa, Human Rights, etc.—remain in the hands of Haig appointees, and Lawrence Eagleburger, Haig’s No. 3 man, retains the job of Undersecretary for Political Affairs. Shultz’s pattern seems to be to work with what’s there unless he can’t. 

Besides managing the department, a Secretary is supposed to make foreign policy, sell it to Congress, communicate it to the American people, and persuade other countries to follow. Some of these jobs Shultz seems to do well, others not so well. On the important ones, making foreign policy and getting other countries to go along, the jury is out but the signs are not good. 

Shultz does get favorable notices from Congress, at least for consulting closely and for listening. “Shultz tends to get the President running room up here,” says Senator Richard Lugar, a Foreign Relations Committee Republican. Shultz seems to have quieted Congressional doubts about stationing Marines in Lebanon and getting Kenneth Adelman confirmed as arms control director. At the same time, Shultz has not been too persuasive on arms control policy and Central America. A Republican Senator on the Senate Armed Services Committee said, “His reputation for probity is accurate—in his field. Given the luxury of time and resources, he would measure up to what you put to him. But he’s out of his element on Armed Services issues.” This Senator said he finds Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, equally ill informed. In communicating to the public, Shultz is perhaps at his least effective. One State Department correspondent says, “He has practically given up his role as chief foreign policy spokesman, and that means he has given up some of his power to influence foreign policy within the Administration.” A serious TV correspondent says, “In nine months, I have never led a story, ‘Secretary of State George Shultz declared today...’ because he rarely says anything worth leading with. But now I can’t get a Shultz story on the air even if it’s worth reporting. They’re not interested.” This dilemma says lots about network TV, where celebrity status, not content, seems to count, but it also means that Shultz does not understand an important part of his function: that of articulating policy. He is so inarticulate, in fact, that correspondents snicker that he’s really another Chauncey Gardiner, the Peter Sellers character in the movie Being There (adapted from Jerzy Kosinski’s book) who mouthed inanities but was thought profound.

The one thing that can be said for public reticence in this Administration is that it ensures the President will not be upstaged, and not upstaging Reagan is apparently one way to maintain the credibility necessary to persuade him. Shultz has persuaded him to change policies in ways that can only be considered salutary. One key example is the retreat from Reagan’s sanctions—urged by Weinberger and Clark—against companies involved in building the Soviet-European gas pipeline. Shultz convinced Reagan to drop the sanctions by winning an agreement from the allies to study restrictions on technology transfers to Communist countries. Everyone (Reagan possibly excepted) considers the studies a face-saver for the United States that will never lead to action (State Department officials naturally deny this). One observer says that the main policy reversal “saved NATO.” That may be an exaggeration, but it did help keep Helmut Kohl Chancellor of Germany.

Shultz gets credit, along with Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, for turning around Reagan’s policy of refusing to expand International Monetary Fund money available for propping up the economies of debtor nations. The State Department won a battle against the Pentagon in persuading Reagan to propose a fallback from the so-called “zero-zero” proposal on intermediate nuclear forces, another salve for U.S.-European relations. 

Yet Another important Shultz contribution is in Middle East policy. Shultz did not devise Reagan’s September 1 peace plan—the strategy is largely Henry Kissinger’s—but he did convince the President to adopt it. The peace plan is widely considered dead unless Shultz himself can breathe some life into it on his current trip, and perhaps it was fatally flawed from the outset, requiring courage that Jordan’s King Hussein and the Saudi regime do not have, and a desire for peace utterly lacking in the P.L.O. Still, the Reagan plan was worth a try, and it maintained American standing in the Arab world after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Shultz aides say, furthermore, that the Arab summit’s communique at Fez implied willingness to recognize and negotiate with Israel, which was a significant step in itself that can provide a basis for future steps.

On his current trip, Shultz is charged with the specific, limited mission of securing Israeli agreement to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. “It’s doable, but it’s not wired,” one White House aide said. The Administration’s hope is that Shultz can work out an agreement on the few difficult issues that still separate Israel and Lebanon—chiefly, the role of Major Saad Haddad—so that the Administration can achieve at least one foreign policy success. 

Shultz has played another important, and pleasantly surprising, role in Middle East policy—that of improving the deteriorating U.S.-Israeli relationship. As with the pipeline sanctions, this is a case of Shultz’s having to repair damage inflicted by Weinberger, but at least he has done it. Shultz, like Weinberger, came to the Administration from the Bechtel Corporation, a huge construction company doing billions of dollars’ worth of business with Saudi Arabia. Prior to his confirmation, he led some Senators to think that he, like Weinberger, took a militantly pro-Saudi, anti-Israeli attitude toward Middle East policy. This has not proved to be the case, however. “He’s been fair and decent,” said one pro-Israel lobbyist. “He apparently knows that you cannot mediate a dispute if one party thinks you are trying to do them in.” Shultz repeatedly resisted Weinberger’s efforts to impose an arms embargo on Israel—failing, in the case of F-16 jets, succeeding on Sidewinder missiles—and in a supposedly bitter meeting in front of Reagan on April 17, beat Weinberger on the issue of releasing American parts for the Lavi, a new airplane project that means some 25,000 jobs for Israel. 

Even though he is doing creditable work as a diplomatic repairman, so far Shultz cannot be considered the foreign policy builder that the nation needs. His actions have been responses to outside influences—European pressures, Kissinger ideas, financial crises, Israeli complaints—rather than innovations of his own. Except for the Middle East initiative, they have also tended to be limited, incremental moves, not broad resolutions. 

A special new challenge is coming—again from the outside—on strategic arms control. The Scowcroft Commission, appointed to find a basing system for the MX missile, actually went far beyond its assignment, and completely discredited the President’s START proposal, demonstrating that it would leave U.S. land-based missiles more vulnerable to Soviet attack than under the SALT II treaty negotiated by President Carter. The Scowcroft Commission also called for the United States to persuade the Soviets to move from large, multi-warhead missiles to small, single-warhead rockets. The challenge to Shultz and to Reagan is whether the Administration can devise a new negotiating position, or whether it will tinker with the existing one—perhaps by adjusting upward the permitted number of missile launchers—and postpone to another day and to a START II treaty the shift to single-warhead missiles. 

George Shultz’s possibly fatal handicap in meeting such challenges is simply his lack of experience with and knowledge of foreign policy issues. “George Shultz has two real interests,” said an Administration colleague. “One is the Arab-Israeli dispute, and the other is foreign economic policy. I’m not sure he is really interested in foreign policy beyond that. This is a guy who never thought about the really big questions of global politics— détente, Africa, North-South relations in any other sense but economics, revolution in the Third World. Shultz does get carefully briefed by the State Department, but he doesn’t have much independent knowledge, no views. That means that the assistant secretaries run the State Department, and they do have views. He’s the representative of the assistant secretaries.”

A critic says this is a pattern with Shultz. “He’s had all those jobs—budget director. Secretary of Labor, Treasury Secretary, the Bechtel job—and he has no following of his own. He doesn’t stand for anything. He gets adopted by an organization and helps the organization do what it would do well anyway. That’s not what you want at State. The natural tendency of the State Department is to maintain the status quo.” One academic observes, “Shultz has no background to get out in front of events and issues. He is reasonable. He is sound. He is an institutional conservative who believes in the establishment, in NATO and the I.M.F., but he’s no innovator, no lead player.” 

Still another academic says, “There are two types of foreign policy you can develop. One is region by region, case by case. The other is an overall global framework into which you fit regional policies. If you don’t know about foreign policy, you can’t have an overall framework. Studying individual areas does not get you a global policy.” What George Shultz seems to be is a talented conciliator, an intelligent muddler, a worthy repairman. If salve could save the world, he might be a great Secretary of State. Unfortunately, it takes more.