The Clinton Administration probably should have been allowed to have its way and make Morton H. Halperin assistant secretary of defense. Now, however, his chances of getting the job look slim. His nomination was returned to the White House, after one hearing, by the Senate Armed Services Committee. During Halperin's appearance before the committee, senators questioned him about the views and allies he has embraced since he quit his job with President Richard Nixon's National Security Council over the 1970 bombing of Cambodia. With the Administration having decided to resubmit his name when Congress reconvenes, it will be in for still more contentiousness.
Some observers have said that Halperin is being held hostage by those who want to refight the Cold War battle of hawks vs. doves. This analysis misses the point. Halperin's nomination is, indeed, weighed down by the past 25 years of U.S. foreign-policy disputes. But his chief problem is not that he was on the wrong side of the debates. He has been damaged by the mistrustful climate and take-no-prisoner tactics that began with Vietnam-era politics and persist to this day. In one of those marvelous ironies, Halperin himself played no small part in perpetuating this bitterness.
True, part of the trouble stems from Halperin's symbolic status. After he left the White House, he discovered that his phone had been tapped by his former boss, Henry A. Kissinger, who thought Halperin was leaking to the press. Halperin launched a lawsuit, which lasted nearly 20 years. More generally, the former NSC staffer became a vocal critic of the national-security Establishment and of U.S. covert operations abroad.
Halperin headed the Campaign to Stop Government Spying, whose members were organizations on the left and the far left. He testified, at a deportation hearing, for ex-CIA agent Philip Agee, who wrote a book that disclosed the names of CIA operatives and is thought to have caused the murder of a CIA station chief. Halperin also reviewed Agee's book without mentioning, let alone criticizing, what the ex-agent had done.
Halperin stood visibly with those who believed and said that the country's defense apparatus was criminal and illegitimate. It is no wonder that he seemed a perfect symbol for those who believed, at the time of his nomination, that the Vietnam debate still had not ended and the Administration was still unchastened.
Of course, the real Halperin did not fit neatly into his critics' box. True, in his anti-intelligence activities he had joined forces with some unsavory characters and made, in writing, some egregious statements that cannot be explained simply by claiming that the words have been taken out of context.
Yet, when Halperin took a post with the ACLU in Washington, he carried on the organization's tradition of defending at least some individuals on the American political right. In the various national-security discussions in which he participated during the 1980s, he struck many of his opponents as thoughtful.
He has behaved not like a subversive but like, as his supporters call him, a "defense intellectual."
He was, after all, a foreign-policy wunderkind who became the nation's youngest-ever deputy assistant secretary of defense before joining the White House. He was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations at the age of 27. The job Halperin wants would put him in charge of "democracy and peacekeeping"--just the sorts of Cold War activities that doves used to deride as symbols of American hubris and as temptations to the abuse of American power. Aspiring to this post is about as un-subversive an activity as can be imagined.
But these are not days in which it is easy to let bygones fade. Halperin's friends have claimed that the campaign against him smacks of McCarthyism; more concretely, it can be traced back to the travails of Robert H. Bork. You may remember how organizations like People for the American Way advanced the art of nominee-fighting by the diligence with which they combed Bork's record for statements that sounded as if they were outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. There was no widespread objection. Thus, it became accepted, and was later available to the opponents of C. Lani Guinier and Halperin.
Yet the Bork-ish style of the attack on Halperin was only one part of his troubles. The Administration was hit by another modern reality when it chose to place Halperin not in the White House or the State Department but at the Pentagon, in a job requiring close relations with the Central Intelligence Agency.
If there are organizations in the U.S. government whose cultures despise everything Halperin has represented for the past 20 years, they are the CIA and the Defense Department. In these post-Watergate days, a President cannot simply order such bureaucracies to shut up and go along; they feel free--no, obliged--to point out the failings of those chosen to head them.
Along with vigilant bureaucrats, modern Washington has congressional staffs more aggressive than they used to be at ferreting out and using information against nominees. These staffers get help from another post-Vietnam phenomenon, a proliferation of public-interest groups largely devoted to exposing whatever it is that the government does not want them to know. In Halperin's case, it is the conservative Center for Security Policy that has led the anti-nomination forces.
Apparently not seeing just how active his enemies were, the Administration committed the kind of mistake fatal in today's climate: They allowed Halperin to take official actions before he was formally confirmed by the Senate. They broke the rules. They gave their adversaries an unambiguous hook on which to hang the anti-Halperin campaign.
The net result of this arrangement of forces is the concerted opposition that we saw in Halperin's hearing.
The system at work in the Halperin nomination is not one we should be proud of. The modern gauntlet makes it harder for a President to assemble nominees of his own choosing who will faithfully carry out his policies. It saps presidential accountability, lowers the standards of political decency and intensifies the gridlock of government.
Yet it arose, we should remember, out of the self-righteous legalism and almost murderous mistrust of political adversaries that entered politics via the Vietnam debate and was institutionalized in the wake of Watergate. Halperin, in his campaign against the intelligence community, was one of those who inculcated such sentiments. And the present unrestrained partisanship will abate only when we understand just how costly that mistrust and moralism have been.