Crisis in Foggy Bottom: What Rex Tillerson Can Really Learn From Alexander Haig

November 21, 2017

Last month, in the midst of the Trump administration’s first foreign policy crisis — an escalating exchange of threats with North Korean after the regime tested new intercontinental ballistic missiles — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s days seemed to be numbered. First came an NBC News exposé detailing the secretary’s discontent with the president’s leadership, which forced Tillerson to issue a rare statement confirming his intention to remain in the position. Then came a New Yorker profile by Dexter Filkins, which found the secretary “at the breaking point,” overwhelmed by the scope of decision-making, aloof from the State Department, and feuding with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

Tillerson’s own comportment hasn’t helped instill confidence in his tenure. Early on, he admitted to a reporter he “didn’t even want this job” but had been convinced when his wife “told me I’m supposed to do this.” His efforts to downsize the department have made him enemies in Foggy Bottom and on Capitol Hill, but his most important critic remains President Donald Trump, who seems to take pleasure in contradicting Tillerson. When asked by Fox News about Tillerson’s effectiveness, the president didn’t exactly sound sympathetic, saying “I’m the only one that matters because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.” And when asked if Tillerson would serve out the rest of his term, Trump responded simply, “we will see.”

Tillerson’s tenuous position in Washington has brought comparisons to his unfortunate predecessor, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Ronald Reagan’s embattled first secretary of state who resigned the post after only 17 months in office. Observers have used the analogue to understand Tillerson’s potential conflicts of interest, explain his “rough start,” clarify his relationship with Haley, and — most commonly — place bets on his imminent departure from the administration. (For those interested, gambling websites place the odds of Tillerson surviving until Christmas at 7:1.) Of course, historical analysis cannot predict when — or even if — Tillerson will suffer his predecessor’s same fate. Nonetheless, careful historical analysis of the factors that led to Haig’s resignation in 1982 can enrich our understanding of the political and strategic consequences of a chief diplomat being maligned and marginalized.

Haig and Tillerson are, in many ways, quite different. Most notably, Tillerson lacks Haig’s foreign policy credentials. Before Reagan, Haig built a larger-than-life reputation as a Kissinger protégé who survived the Nixon White House and served as supreme allied commander Europe. But he shares many of his predecessor’s handicaps, which makes the comparison alluring. Both men were brought into the administration as moderate pragmatists intended to add depth to an inexperienced president’s national security team, and both were tasked with leading the State Department in administrations that downplayed the role of diplomacy in renewing American strength abroad. Tillerson’s experience during the first ten months of this administration — an apparent isolation from a White House inner circle bent on shielding the president’s political mythos — echoes Haig’s aloofness to the self-proclaimed Kitchen Cabinet of Reagan’s California advisers.

As we know, the story did not end well for Haig. From the beginning a compromise appointment selected to assuage Washington insiders, he never infiltrated the president’s inner circle. Haig also had a temperament problem. Notoriously arrogant and self-righteous, his insistence on singular control of foreign policy led to clashes with virtually every other key official in the administration. So too did a series of public gaffes, like his infamous March 1981 declaration, in the wake of an assassination attempt on the president, that he was “in control” — a misstatement of law and a blunder that dogged him for the rest of his life. These personal differences were magnified by real policy disagreements, which Haig’s opponents used to question his fealty to Reagan’s leadership. In the spring of 1981, for example, he opposed Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s demand to link arms control negotiations to Soviet policy toward Poland. Later that year, he fought repeated Pentagon efforts to impose sanctions on Israel. In early 1982, he broke from hardliners in the administration who wanted to squeeze the Soviet economy by disrupting a planned Trans-Siberian natural gas pipeline. He suffered a blow to his reputation after a failed attempt to stave off war between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands (he lamented to his wife that the incident would be “his Waterloo”). And in East Asia, Haig’s desire to improve Sino-American relations conflicted with the White House’s preference for tightening links with the nationalist government in Taiwan. Haig often managed to convince the president, but each battle chipped away at his position until eventually, in July 1982, he was asked to resign.

Of course, Al Haig was neither the first nor last secretary of state to find himself at odds with other cabinet members. But over Haig’s 18 months in office, a wave of crises — from the ongoing civil war in El Salvador to the Solidarity protests in Poland and the intensifying war between Iran and Iraq — demonstrated how the combination of a weak secretary of state and inexperienced president severely damaged the administration’s ability to make foreign policy. A “cacophony of voices and incoherence of American foreign policy had created dangerous uncertainties,” for future policy, he later wrote. The administration’s policy dissonance confused allies, sending signals that, for all Reagan’s assertive rhetoric, he was reluctant to wade into foreign policy. Advisors’ infighting left the administration without a clear strategy or decision-making process, putting the United States in a reactive mode whereby each new challenge seemed to demonstrate the Washington’s insolvency abroad.

Nowhere was the dangerous impact of bureaucratic drift on the nation’s foreign policy so demonstrated as in Lebanon, a country that assumed inordinate importance for the Reagan administration. For over a year, policymakers had recognized the danger of a major Israeli military incursion to root out the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Senior U.S. officials braced for the prospect of a regional conflict near the Soviet Union’s southwestern border. At Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s funeral in October 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin pulled Haig aside to whisper his plans for a new move into Lebanon, a prospect the secretary of state had firmly discouraged. But the Israelis didn’t drop the idea, and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled plans for a massive ground operation to evict the PLO during a session with U.S. officials in December. Additional warning signs — including the movement of 24,000 Israeli troops to the border — piled up in the spring, but the State Department, preoccupied by its own battle with the Pentagon for control of Middle East policy, was unable to summon sufficient interagency pressure to convince Jerusalem to hold back. Nor did the president try to reconcile the competing messages communicated by his senior advisors to Israeli and Arab leaders, which increased Israeli officials’ anxiety and empowered militant voices within the cabinet. Instead, one senior official later wrote, the Reagan administration “adopted a policy of essentially whistling past the graveyard.”

After months of false starts, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon began on June 6, 1982. To be sure, the United States had issued moderate warnings against such action, but the administration’s infighting diluted the message and allowed Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Sharon to listen selectively. Haig’s influence was already waning by this time, but the Lebanon crisis pushed the secretary’s strained relationship with the White House to a breaking point and revealed the extent of its procedural dysfunction. As America’s top diplomat and the public face of the Reagan administration abroad, Haig had an important role to play in the effort to contain the fighting, and he acted quickly to issue instructions to U.S. diplomats in the region and at the United Nations. But in his effort to organize a rapid response, Haig found himself at odds with National Security Advisor William Clark, who agreed with the secretary on policy but opposed him on procedural terms. Without Haig’s knowledge, he decided to deploy a special negotiator to the Middle East to find a settlement. “Clark ordered my subordinate to come over and see the president, and I didn’t even know it!” Haig later ranted.

This was only the first in what would become a long list of humiliations and contradictions that ensnarled decision-making and limit the administration’s ability to respond to the violence in Lebanon. Over the next four weeks, Haig was systematically excluded from meetings, denied access to the president, and publicly contradicted by other senior advisors who sought to wrest control of the administration’s rudderless response to the crisis. Already strained by the president’s travel schedule, communication channels became clogged with conflicting and often outdated commands. While one crisis management group made recommendations through White House channels, the State Department would send its own report to Haig to present for Reagan’s approval — often after the president had already authorized a decision on the same issue through the other channel. Documents in the Reagan archive in Simi Valley make clear the persistent confusion over the basic facts of the conflict and a dangerous vacuum of authority at the top that frustrated effective decision-making. “The foreign policy tiller was not in very firm hands,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis later recalled, “[e]very Cabinet member was marching to his or her own drum beat.” Weeks later, Reagan fired Haig, although the secretary agreed to continue to manage the Lebanese crisis from the isolation of the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia until confirmation hearings for his successor, George Shultz, were complete.

Will foreign policy crises drive Tillerson and Trump to a similar breaking point? That enticing question is almost beside the point (and attempts to distill precise predictions from history should be viewed with skepticism). Already, Tillerson has proven himself more tenacious than expected. Instead, a deeper dive into the details of the Lebanon crisis reveals more substantial warnings for the administration — and for U.S. foreign policy — as its chief diplomat hangs out to dry.

First, Haig’s marginalization amidst the Israeli invasion of Lebanon reminds us that incoherent leadership seriously damages an administration’s ability to manage and respond to events. Effective crisis management requires an administration to speak with one voice, and for the international community to trust that the secretary of state — and his ambassadors — speaks for the president. But on Lebanon, Haig, isolated from the White House and attacked in the press, struggled to exercise influence over the involved parties, who each favored different interpretations of the mixed signals coming from Washington. This confusion contributed to the Israeli decision to invade in June 1982, but its consequences worsened as the crisis dragged on. In the second week of the war, for example, anonymous officials leaked a set of classified cables describing the tension between the president, Haig, and the U.S. diplomats tasked with negotiating a settlement, undercutting sensitive negotiations just as the outline of a ceasefire agreement emerged and inspiring a new Israeli offensive. When U.S. leadership might have contained the violence, the Reagan administration appeared unable to control its own people, let alone an escalating war thousands of miles away.

Fast forward to 2017, when other senior officials have contradicted or undermined Tillerson so consistently on policy issues — from the Iran deal to the rationale underlying the administration’s missile strike on Syria in April — that one journalist speculates that “when [Tillerson] talks, people assume that the President feels the opposite way.” This dynamic is most glaring in the secretary of state’s struggle to manage the crises in East Asia — where the question of nuclear weapons raises the stakes and renders the administration’s dissonance even more destabilizing. While Tillerson voices support for the long-standing American objective of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula through negotiation, the president (as confirmed by Sen. Bob Corker in an October interview) has “hurt” that policy by issuing a series of belligerent threats to North Korea via Twitter. These contradictions apparently baffle North Korean officials, who took the unusual step of reaching out to American Republican analysts in a desperate effort to decipher the administration’s position. Those hoping that Trump’s recent trip to Asia might bring clarity were sorely disappointed, as the president called for unity against Korea while appearing to hand off responsibility to China, who appeared unwilling to enforce sanctions against the Kim Jong Un regime. Even more so than U.S. intentions vis-a-vis Israel in 1982, these mixed signals risk altering North Korea’s perception of U.S. deterrence policies, and the costs for Pyongyang of further developing — or using — its nuclear capabilities.

This leads to a second warning: Uncertainty in Washington forces U.S. policymakers to think reactively rather than strategically, with the result that crises are often prolonged, options narrowed, and the odds of miscalculation increased.

Indeed, confusion in Washington and in Jerusalem over the aims of U.S. Middle East policy helped make the Israeli invasion of Lebanon more likely, and stymied international efforts to quell the fighting. While U.S. officials fought, Israeli forces laid siege to West Beirut, cutting off water, electricity, and access to vital supplies. Civilian casualties climbed and international pressure on Washington to intervene reached a boiling point. In internal papers, the State Department acknowledged that the situation threatened “a major erosion of our position in the Arab world [and] a resurgence of anti-American fundamentalism.” Forced on the defensive and desperate to quickly end the fighting, Reagan hastily approved a U.S. peacekeeping deployment, overriding opposition from the Pentagon and ambiguities in their mission. Their 30-day mission would stretch on for nearly two years, increasing the human and reputational costs for the United States and contributed to the creation of Hizballah, one of the region’s most virulent militant groups.

Similarly, while the Trump administration squabbles at home over the direction of its policies, and fails to fill leadership positions at the State Department, regional competitors have eagerly filled the void. Trump’s East Asia trip made clear that China’s Xi Jinping believes that working with Trump — or giving the appearance of it — bolsters China’s regional supremacy. Even erstwhile rivals like Japan are beginning to inch closer to Beijing. The pattern is repeated from Ukraine, where Russia’s appetite for influence has grown, to Syria and Iraq, where Iran’s role has grown more bold, to Myanmar, where the government, confident in the Trump administration’s disinterest, has accelerated its genocide against the Rohingya minority. Each reinforce the idea that a marginalized secretary of state will have less ability to press for U.S. interests in regional diplomacy. Surveying the state of American influence abroad, G. John Ikenberry has already summoned a dire prediction: “Across ancient and modern eras, orders built by great powers have come and gone — but they have usually ended in murder not suicide.”

The third and final warning is that putting one’s own foreign policy house in order is the essential first step to productive engagement abroad. Those familiar with the history might take comfort in the knowledge that Haig’s departure was, in retrospect, a pivotal point for Reagan’s presidency. His exit heralded the emergence of Shultz as the president’s undisputed key foreign policy adviser, lending a new coherence to an administration previously defined by discord. Although Shultz had his own fair share of clashes with other policymakers (his dislike for Weinberger is legendary), he helped guide the United States away from a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union and fostered the conditions for a peaceful end to the Cold War. He excelled where his predecessor had stumbled, using his personal relationship with the president to build consensus and proving himself an effective counter-balance to the president’s other, more ideological advisors. These traits earned Shultz bipartisan praise, and secured him a reputation as one of the most respected leaders in the department’s history.

But however tempting the analogy, history does not support this optimism. The real question is not whether there is a latter-day Shultz waiting in the wings, but whether the president himself is up for the job. It is true that Haig contributed to the infighting that undermined American diplomacy, much like Tillerson does today. But the sins of the man in charge are different. Reagan’s was passivity. He often neglected bureaucratic tensions until they erupted in scandal or disaster. Even then, Reagan recognized the importance of preserving his secretary of state’s authority as America’s voice abroad. He continued to support Haig in public as he prepared a replacement in private. But where Reagan refused to tarnish his secretary’s name, Trump relishes in every opportunity to humiliate his subordinates. He has humiliated his attorney general, mocked multiple members of his own party, and directly contradicted his own spokespeople.

Whether or not Tillerson lasts longer than Haig, the secretary or his replacement (whoever he or she may be) will have a daunting list of crises ahead. The first challenge will be to forge coherence within the administration around the thankless work of diplomacy. Until then, Tillerson will find himself working at the mercy — and not simply the pleasure — of the president.


Alexandra T. Evans is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Virginia and an Ernest May Fellow in History & Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Evan D. McCormick is a historian and postdoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. His book on the Reagan administration’s foreign policy toward Latin America is under contract with Cornell University Press.

Image: Reagan Presidential Library

Correction: The text originally dated Haig’s declaration in the wake of the attempted assassination of Reagan to March 1982, when in fact it was 1981. Thanks to Todd Greentree for pointing out this error.