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Al Haig's Foreign Policy Blunders

By Melvin A. Goodman
February 25, 2010

Editor’s Note: Obituaries for Gen. Alexander Haig focused on his melodramatic attempt to be the man in charge after the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, but there was a less comical side to Haig’s influence on U.S. history.

Haig played roles in exacerbating – and possibly extending – the Cold War with a misguided bellicosity that continues to echo through U.S. foreign policy, as former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:

The obituaries in the mainstream media failed to capture the full extent of the controversy and confrontation that marked Gen. Alexander M. Haig's political career in the White House during the Nixon administration and the State Department during the Reagan administration.

In his memoir, Henry A. Kissinger praised Haig's role in 1973-1974 in "holding the government together" in the final days of the Nixon era. Kissinger was respectful of Haig because the general allowed the national security adviser to do as he pleased in his stewardship of foreign and national security policy.

Haig's hands-off attitude allowed Kissinger to unnecessarily and dangerously raise the nuclear alert status to Defense Condition III for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in an effort to deter the Soviets from any military intervention in the last days of the October War of 1973 (also known as the Yom Kippur or Fourth Arab-Israeli war).

But there was no Soviet intention to intervene, and America’s European allies - let alone Moscow - were particularly upset with the nuclear alert. Several of NATO allies, including Germany, Spain and Italy, limited U.S. access to their bases as a result of DefCon-III.

Neither Haig nor Kissinger ever explained the rationale for the heightened nuclear alert - although they promised to do so.

Gen. Haig never should have permitted Kissinger to chair a meeting of the National Security Council, let alone raise the nuclear alert status, without the presence of President Richard M. Nixon, who was indisposed at the time.

The National Security Act of 1947 makes it clear that only the president or the vice president must run such a meeting or the president must issue a written authorization to make it clear who is going to run the meeting.

The United States had no vice president at the time because Spiro Agnew had been forced to resign and Gerald Ford had not been confirmed. The meeting was held shortly before midnight on Oct. 24, 1973, and Haig refused to awaken the sleeping president. The decision of Haig and Kissinger was reckless and could have had grave consequences.

Terror Bungles

Haig was a major player in the U.S. failure to understand the role of international terrorism and to falsely blame the Soviet Union for the orchestration of terrorism.

As the new secretary of state, Haig arrived at the State Department in 1981 with strong anti-Soviet baggage, based in part on his belief that the Soviet Union was a primary source of support for international terrorism.

There had been an attempt to assassinate Haig in Europe in June 1979, only four days before he stepped down as Supreme Allied Commander for Europe. The Soviets had nothing to do with the assassination attempt, but in his confirmation hearings on Jan. 14, 1981, Haig charged the Soviets with orchestrating the attempt.

On that same day, the Senate confirmed William Casey as director of the CIA by a vote of 95 to 0. From that point forward, Haig and Casey led an effort to portray Moscow as orchestrating terrorism "like a giant Wurlitzer organ."

Haig and Casey immediately conspired to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on international terrorism, knowing that they had a high-level supporter for their views, the incoming president, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan's campaign oratory against the Soviets regularly referred to "Soviet-trained terrorists who are bringing civil war to Central America," requiring a "stand against terrorism in the world."

Haig and Casey believed that CIA political analysis was naive and unsophisticated, and wanted an estimate on terrorism for key policy-makers to demonstrate that a new era had begun at the CIA.

The new National Intelligence Officer for the Soviet Union, Robert Gates, immediately became an advocate for Casey's hard-line views, serving as Casey's special assistant, deputy director for intelligence and deputy for central intelligence.

A senior intelligence official, the late Richard Lehman, who facetiously referred to policy-makers as "our masters," told a group of us responsible for the estimate that Casey and Haig have to be "let down, and that it is our job to let them down easily."

We were well aware of the difficult bureaucratic task we faced, but we were also aware that there was no good evidence of Soviet support for international terrorism in Western Europe and the Middle East.

What we didn't know was that Haig and Casey had read Claire Sterling's polemic on terrorism, The Terror Network, and that no amount of factual information would disabuse them of their notions about Moscow and terror. Haig immediately appointed Michael Ledeen to his staff; Ledeen was Sterling's collaborator on The Terror Network.

Haig, Casey and Gates used the accusations of Soviet responsibility for terrorism to block any possibility of improved relations with the Soviet Union. Fortunately, Haig's successor, George Shultz, ignored these accusations.

The obituaries pointed out that President Reagan's acceptance of Haig's offer to resign his post as secretary of state was a shock to the general, but they failed to note the reason for Reagan's acceptance.

In his memoir, Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy, Haig claims that the United States sent the "strongest possible warnings" to Israel not to launch its war against Lebanon in 1982. There were no U.S. warnings.

In fact, Haig was one of a very few members of the Reagan administration to understand that the Israeli offensive was going to reach Beirut, the Lebanese capital, in violation of Israeli assurances not to threaten Arab capitals.

As secretary of state, Haig was in a position to warn the Israelis against such a disastrous military adventure and its obvious consequences, but chose not to do so. Instead of issuing a "red light" against such a campaign, Haig merely issued a "yellow light" of caution regarding the clandestine arrangements between the Israelis and the Lebanese Maronite leaders.

These arrangements led to the bloody conquest of Beirut, byzantine political alliances between Lebanese factions, the frustration and tragedy of the US Marine occupation, the Palestinian massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps and the formation of Hezbollah.

Lebanon has had no stability for the past three decades, and Israel continues to have a security problem on its northern frontier.

Haig's role in all of these events - DefCon-III; the handling of international terrorism; and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon - had unintended consequences that harmed the interests of the United States and delayed the process of diplomacy and negotiation.

Like many of the neoconservatives who dominated the administration of President George W. Bush, Haig placed too much reliance on the use and threat of military force and relegated diplomacy to a back burner.

This militarization of American national security and foreign policies has harmed U.S. interests and raised the hidden costs of U.S. involvement in the Cold War.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. [This story originally appeared at]

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