When a Secretary of State Acts Like a Chief of Staff

Jefferson Morley is Washington editor of the Nation magazine

After the invasion of Panama, Secretary of State James A. Baker III seemed in danger of being listed as missing in action. The secretary was rarely seen defending or explaining the attack. The steady Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the bland Richard B. Cheney, secretary of defense, and even the eccentric Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, head of Southern Command, talked about foreign-policy implications more than Baker. And when the military operation ceased, what experienced senior official with a track record of deft negotiating was dispatched to soothe the Latin democracies? Vice President Dan Quayle, of course.

All this confirms that, after a year at Foggy Bottom, Baker is less a secretary of state than a presidential chief of staff in charge of U.S. overseas policy.

Throughout U.S. history, the secretary of state has been the key figure in shaping foreign policy. From the Monroe Doctrine of President James Monroe, which was actually written by his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, to the years when George C. Marshall, Dean G. Acheson and John Foster Dulles evolved policies under Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the secretary of state was intimately involved with mapping out long-range plans that defined the United States in relation to the rest of the world.

The secretary, as well as the President, must articulate the nation's diplomatic aspirations. Despite the rise of the national security bureaucracy since World War II, the person chosen as secretary of state is considered the most important presidential counselor. When Cyrus R. Vance resigned after the botched hostage rescue attempt in 1979, the nation was stunned and the nomination machinery started up.

This traditional heavyweight role makes matters doubly disturbing when Baker seems to misunderstand his mandate. This was evident when he defended his attempts to mislead the American public on the secret July visit to China of high-level presidential advisers by having a spokeswoman explain, "His friend of 30 years and his President had asked him to keep it secret." Baker's official government role seems to take second place to his personal relationship to the President.

In much the same way, Baker seems to be focusing on the Preisdent's political support as opposed to long-term diplomatic interests. In September, when he was asked why the Adminstration was not out in front in responding to the dramatic events in Eastern Europe--something Democrats had been critical of--Baker said, "When the President is rocking along at a 70% approval rating on his handling of foreign policy, if I were the leader of the opposition, I might have something similar to say." He did not seem to understand the ramifications of the matter at hand.

"Baker thinks first about conserving the domestic support of the President, which he sees as the main source of political capital that the President has to spend," observes William LeoGrande, a professor at American University in Washington. Domestic politics is the key to Baker's international politics.

The Panama invasion crystallized two essential aspects of the Baker modus operandi:

First, do what's good for Jim Baker. Baker's ambitions are neither modest nor yet fulfilled. "George Schultz wanted to be a great secretary of state in a kind of George Marshallian way, the crowning achievement of his life," said one former Reagan State Department official. "I'm sure Jim Baker doesn't think that this is the crowning job of his life."

Could Baker's reticence on Panama be partly a political calculation? So far, there is no downside politically to the Panama invasion. But the political situation there has not yet stabilized, and the full impact of Panamanian civilian deaths during the U.S. military occupation has not yet been felt.

By 1992 it is possible that Central American military adventures will be a political liability. It is also possible, but improbable, that any senior Bush Administration policy-maker yet understands that--even the legendarily shrewed and ambitious Baker.

Second, Latin America is a loser: Baker's record on Latin American issues reveals less foresight than forestalling.

In the first year of the Reagan Administration, Alexander M. Haig Jr. wanted to use open military threats to achieve the U.S. goals in Latin America. Baker, as White House chief of staff, succeeded in muzzling Haig. But Haig's bluster was followed by the more successful right-wing campaign to make a major foreign-policy cause out of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Baker opposed that, too, but not effectively. If he believed anything, it was that Central America is a divisive, emotional issue without payoff on election day.

The secretary's one accomplishment in Latin America is the so-called Baker plan. In 1985, when Baker was Treasury secretary, Peru threatened to stop repayment on its crushing external debt. Politically, the United States had to do something, or leadership on the debt issue was going to pass to the Latins, Europe or Japan.

The Baker plan proposed a modest and ineffectual program of debt relief. It quickly died. It was replaced by the Brady plan, which promised a bit more of the same, and is now also on the verge of expiration.

In his first year as secretary of state, Baker did virtually nothing on the debt problem. The debt crisis--and its steady downward drag on the standard of living of most Latin Americans--continues unabated.

Baker's style has implications for U.S. foreign policy in years to come.

The U.S. military benefits. If Baker lacks interest in Central America, for example, the newly assertive Pentagon will fill the policy vacuum. When ousted Panama head of state Manual A. Noriega took refuge in the Papal Nuncio in Panama City, U.S. troops blasted rock music in his direction. If this stunt wasn't the cover for some electronic eavesdropping, then it was both asinine and ominous.

"That showed how closed the circle of decision-makers was during the invasion," said one former State Department official. "No one with any experience in diplomacy could have authorized that." Effective U.S. leadership on the real issues facing Latin America is more difficult. For example, U.S. military policy-makers, intoxicated by success in Panama, announced a naval exercise off the coast of Colombia. No one had yet asked the Colombians what they thought about this sudden escalation of the drug war in their territorial waters. The Colombian political class exploded in protest.

Baker didn't have anything to do with the ill-advised proposal for an anti-drug flotilla--but that's part of the point. The secretary of state is expected to anticipate all policy issues raised by brief undeclared wars on small neighbors. These issues include international political considerations, legal considerations and long-term versus short-term assessments. The United States has pressing interests in Latin America: the fate of the Amazon, the debt crisis and the drug economy.

These are not the kind of issues that a presidential chief of staff can or ought to worry about--but what about a secretary of state? There's no indication that these issues were faced on the seventh floor of Baker's state department before the Panama invasion. There's little surprise that they were not.

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