Feb 24th 2010

Blunt Instrument of the Dark Side: Alexander Haig

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

The bluff and bluster of history stills itself from time to time, leaving in its wake the busy activity of revisionism and more sympathetic readings of its figures. A figure who is unlikely to deserve such treatment is the late Alexander Haig, a Cold War warrior who was very happy to push the bloodied envelope for the sake of his masters, at least when he wasn't undermining them. He served as a commander of the 1st infantry division in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon's Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and President Ronald Reagan's US Secretary of State for a year.

Haig never shied away from the opinion that the projection of US power was paramount, so much so that it trumped such ethical matters as human rights. This was something he shared with his contemporaries, among them President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who himself noted in his memoirs how 'power had to come first.' That power, notably during Haig's time as an advisor, was an exercise over less global turf. The battle was becoming more circumscribed. Allies were rising in estimation. Détente with Moscow was being practised; the Chinese were being brought in from the cold. The Soviet Union remained the enemy, but one in a different strategic environment. It was within this environment that the Iago-like Henry Kissinger thrived. The cruder Haig had no such patience, seeing rogues everywhere and diplomacy as dissimulating pantomime.

Haig never left his unrefined views in doubt, blunted by an anti-Communism that verged on mania, and an unhealthy respect for militarist solutions. In Caveat: Realism, Reagan and Foreign Policy (1984) he made it clear that, 'The United States must somehow shock its European allies into an acceptance of the Soviet threat.' And shocking was what Haig had a strong liking for, whether it was endorsing a more savage response to Vietnam, or feeding the surveillance genie that was running rampant during the days of the Nixon administration.

Haig was very much a spoiler, tampering and tinkering when his own simple world view on American power was threatened. Kissinger's view of his contribution was somewhat different, at least in the late 1960s. As assisting advisor to Kissinger on military matters within the NSC, Haig calmed 'anarchic tendencies and established coherence and procedure in National Security Council staff or talented prima donnas.'

However, as Tom Shachtman documents (Huffington Post, Feb 21), Haig operated his own military spy ring, at stages pilfering documents from Kissinger and the NSC. At times, he was effectively trying to cut Nixon out of the loop. He stonewalled and stifled the process of détente to the best of his challenged abilities. When called on to mediate, he showed that it was not necessarily his strong suit, despite a favourable reputation etched for himself during negotiations to end the Vietnam War. A more accurate example was the shuttle diplomacy he employed between Britain and Argentina prior to the Falklands War, bumbling efforts that caused mistrust on all sides.

This was fully realised when he became Chief of Staff in May 1973. With his obsession with power within White House circles came a disturbing tendency, evident more than once, of assuming quasi-Presidential powers. Were his bombastic words uttered in 1981 after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, 'As of now, I am in control here in the White House,' a mere 'poor choice', as he subsequently claimed? He would have no doubt simply issued another 'caveat' on them, making observers pause to realise his sly leanings towards purposely cultivated 'ambiguities'.

In truth, his life had few caveats, and he came, in time, to realise his limitations. This was certainly made clear to him during his attempt to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. His service to various administrations belied a deep and often unstable belief in the nature of power and its attainment. He may well have simply seen his entirely life as littered by what he himself liked terming, after Winston Churchill, 'terminological inexactitudes

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