BOOK REVIEW / A cool head among the desperadoes: 'Turmoil and Triumph' - George P Shultz: Scribner's, 25.95

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The Independent Culture
IN THE so-called 'Reagan Revolution', that incomplete counter-revolution of the Eighties, two kinds of conservatives competed for influence in Washington. There were the 'movement conservatives', as they called themselves: hot-eyed, ideological and radical, like the Republican senator who said, 'I'm a conservative because I believe in change'. And then there were the true conservatives, men and women who believed in changing only what needed to be changed in order to conserve the fabric of a world they felt comfortable with, like Edmund Burke, and like George Shultz.

The main theme of Shultz's memoirs is a success story. When he succeeded Alexander Haig as Secretary of State, the world was in a tense, angry mess. By the time he left, at the end of the Reagan Administration, the Cold War was over. Relations with the Soviet Union were almost miraculously friendly, and Schultz's own personal relationship with Eduard Shevardnadze had contributed significantly to that improvement. The Russians had pulled out of Afghanistan. Everywhere, Soviet influence in the world was fading, and American influence was filling the spaces left by the receding tide.

The struggles within the Reagan Administration, though, loom at least as large in Shultz's narrative as the conflicts in the world outside the Beltway. There was, first of all, the bitter personal feud with Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense. Weinberger, the lawyer from northern California, and Shultz, the economist from the University of Chicago, had bumped into one another all through their respective rises, and at each earlier stage - in the Nixon Administration, and again at the Bechtel Corporation - Shultz had been Weinberger's boss.

Now, as they shared responsibility for that amorphous concept, part diplomacy, part war, called 'national security', Shultz and Weinberger feuded constantly, and the quarrel punctuates Shultz's memoirs like a leitmotiv. There are exactly 100 references to Weinberger in the index, some of them lengthy, none of them complimentary. Indeed, almost the only unedifying thing in the long, careful and fair-minded book is this obsessional carping.

Shultz's more serious problems were with the President's national security advisers and their staff and with the CIA: Bill Casey, Bill Clark, Bud McFarlane, Admiral Poindexter, Oliver North and the whole seedy cast of intriguers and desperadoes, Middle Eastern and nativeborn, to whom they were incessantly trying to hand over American foreign policy. Instinctively, President Reagan shared the manichean worldview of these bravoes and ideologues. He squirmed when Shultz distanced the United States from General Pinochet in Chile, for example, or consented to the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines. Yet nothing is more impressive in this book than Reagan's instinct never to allow his moderate Secretary of State to be totally cut out of the loop.

This is a very long book, over 1,100 pages, and not a light one in any sense of the word. Shultz's manner, on the page as in person, is ponderous, his self-esteem unshakeable, his intellectual complacency at times infuriating. Yet this is an important book, and one which deserves to raise his already solid reputation. His account of the IranContra affair contains new material, though it is more wholehearted in its condemnation of the Iranian arms deals than of the Contra aid.

Shultz does not seem to comprehend fully how exaggerated Washington's fears of Russian and Cuban machinations in Central America always seemed to everyone outside Washington, or how badly the response, by associating the United States with a whole right-wing underworld in Central America, undercut the ostensible purposes of policy.

Diplomatic historians will find his lengthy accounts of the Reagan Administration's dealings with Gorbachev and of the part of the Middle East peace process that happened on his watch very useful. His account of events in Southern Africa is less in touch with reality, and he displays to the full the massive disdain for Europe which has become a dangerous part of Washington's worldview.

The most revealing chapter is Shultz's account of the Administration's paralysis when it tried to cope with General Noriega and his malfeasances in Panama in 1988 - election year. It is a tale as complicated as the plot of a Restoration comedy, but its essence was simple. In February 1988 the Justice Department, without consulting with the White House, indicted General Noriega, who was both the chief of state of an ally, not to say colony, of the United States and at the same time a long- standing asset of the Central Intelligence Agency, for drug trafficking and racketeering.

The bitterness of the infighting within the American government about this helps to explain why, soon after he became President, George Bush launched a major military operation to snatch Noriega. Almost four years later, Noriega remains in jail. His trial looks no more likely than ever. George Bush has gone. And Panama is in worse shape than ever.

There could be few better examples of the contrast between the appearance of awesome military power and political irresistibility which the American government has shown to the world in the past two decades, and the timidity and confusion which all too often takes over in Washington.

Through all these flaps George Shultz pursued his long-faced, long-winded way. He emerges from his own account, and I do not think this can be entirely faked, as a man with firm principles governing the way the United States ought to behave, and a firm set of lines which he was not prepared to compromise in his personal conduct. His book will not perhaps be much read for entertainment. But his reputation, I suspect, will rise with the passing of time, as the air continues to leak out of Henry Kissinger's.

More important, this long, honest and serious account of the way American foreign policy worked in a period of exceptional opportunity confirms an unfashionable but I think now unavoidable impression: that the United States has been fortunate indeed in the quality of its diplomats, both career officials like Philip Habib and some, like Shultz, who became diplomats by vocation, in contrast to the almost unbelievably arrogant and incompetent amateurs in the White House who have so often stood in their light.