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Who's at the Helm?

Who's At The Helm?

Raymond Tanter. Westview Press, $24.95. In the rotten morganatic marriage between government and entertainment, metaphors are always instructive. The Reagan foreign policy, for instance, can be understood as the "Twin Peaks" of American diplomatic history, if not Eraserhead or Blue Velvet, complete with dancing dwarf, unaccountable casualties, crazed officers, and dazed citizenry. The government archetype was racy, unplotted, and a bit perverse in real life long before the show-biz version appeared in prime time.

Like the television creation of director David Lynch, the Reagan policy seems to have been without lasting purpose, its expectant audience now baffled, now exploited, mistaking contrivance for design, effect for achievement. If only the Washington show had been merely a matter of ratings, reviews, and network fortunes, instead of blood and chaos.

Raymond Tanter, who saw it from the inside as a member of the National Security Council (NSC) staff in the early eighties, writes about one of the more obscure and fateful episodes of the prolonged drama--U.S. policy toward the recurrent Middle East crises of 1981-1983, including the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, seminal events that set the stage for so much to come, from Iran-contra to the current Punic expedition in the Persian Gulf.

From relatively modest beginnings as a White House foreign affairs staff under Eisenhower and Kennedy, the NSC has borned the mark and steady bloat of its successive masters. To Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, it was the praetorian guard of their expanding bureaucratic empire. Under Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski mistook it for some Danubian foreign ministry from the 1930s, with growth and titles to match. With the inimitable Reagan quartet of Richard V. Allen, William Clark, Robert McFarlane, and John Poindexter, it grew still larger and more powerful, sometimes confused with a drug or arms cartel, dabbling occasionally in snow tires for Oliver North or furtive White House tours for right-wing contributors.

Over the past two decades, literally hundreds of eager staff members have passed through the gingerbread portals of the old Executive Office Building into the inner sanctum of NSC power. There they were usually stripped of ideology or illusion and soon learned the ultimate little secret of national security politics--that regardless of president or party, the real enemy is not some foreign power but rather the omnipresent bureaucracy with its own election-proof agenda and interests. NSC staff members find they exert their real statesmanship not toward some coalition of exotic states, but in detente with Defense, grand alliances with the CIA, DIA, or the Joint Chiefs, covert action behind the secretaries at State or Treasury, and preemptive strikes on the Oval Office.

There are few vantage points on the Potomac spectacle more educational than that of the NSC staff. Still, it is expressive of the conformity and cult politics of the foreign policy establishment that so few have survived intellectually or morally to write about what they saw. Discounting personal advertisements and the "as told to" genre, Tanter's is one of only about a half-dozen genuine eyewitness accounts. He deserves to be read for that alone, although the book also reminds us that amid their ceaseless bureaucratic writhing, these people were about some serious business.

Like many NSC recruits, Tanter came to the staff in 1981 as a quasi-political academic, his resume by that time already including a stint with then-congressman Donald Rumsfeld, some teaching jobs in the Midwest, and several intervals in Jerusalem spent studying (and apparently admiring) Israeli foreign policy. As deputy chief of the NSC's Near East Office, he promptly found himself enmeshed in a typical Byzantine backroom battle over policy toward the Syrian-Palestinian-Israeli jockeying in Lebanon. Secretary of State Alexander Haig and various "globalists" like Tanter were on one side, with, as the book tells it, assorted villains on the other, among them "regionalist" state department negotiator Philip Habib, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and, not least, special envoy and later NSC Advisor Bud McFarlane.

Tanter sees the essential issue as the globalists' creative if somewhat vague wish to "combine force and diplomacy" marshaled against those timorous bureaucrats "hesitant to reap whatever benefits there may have been for the United States in Israel's threats and use of force." Cleared of the gauze of academic or NSC prose, it was the hoary strugle between some of Washington's oldest factions--the robust pro-Israeli, Soviets-in-the-desert interventionists versus the cautious career officers and their occasional cabinet allies, men who were scarcely pro-Arab or soft on the Reds (Habib, after all, was once among our most passionate proconsuls in Saigon) but who instinctively shied away from the diplomatic costs and unpredictability of yet another Israeli attack.

Tanter gives his own partisan but revealing account of the tortuous period from 1981 through 1983, when U.S. policy was paralyzed by intramural politics while the Middle East protagonists plunged ever deeper into the fathomless factionalism of the Lebanese civil war. A Phalangist dirt road in the Bekaa Valley would thus lead to Syrian missiles, to the Israeli invasion of 1982, eventually to 241 U.S. Marines dead in the wreckage both of makeshift barracks and of an equally flimsy policy--and still further into the mists of the Iron-contra scandal and even Iraq's seizure of Kuwait.

It is all much too reminiscent of my own experience on the NSC staff on different issues, from a different perspective, more than a decade before Tanter. There is the ready perversion of intelligence, the all-purpose evocation of Soviet might and cunning, and the interminable bureaucratic squabbling, distraction, and distortion. And all the while, like the Hound of the Baskervilles, Ronald Reagan is amiably absent from the history. "Presidential uninvolvement," Tanter nimbly calls it.

Washington could think of, and agree on, nothing better than to scold (but then quickly resupply) the Israelis after their invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut. What followed was the PLO expulsion from the Levant and the still more bloody and convoluted turmoil among Lebanese factions and their Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi sponsors, making the crises of 1981-1983 in many ways the parent of the Intifada, the hostage agonies of the late eighties, and the wider Arab despair with American policy, a despair so deep that it now greets even Saddam Hussein as a hero.

Unwilling or unable to transcend his often pedantic approach, Tanter misses the precious chance to tell the rich human yarn of all this blundering and shortsightedness. He concludes his survey of a "map for mismanagement" with some remarkably bland assertions--that the president should run foreign policy along with the secretaries of state and defense, while the NSC advisor acts as a mere "honest broker"; that the "structure" should avoid the lethal bureaucratic rivalries; that crisis is the White House's opportunity for leadership. All beg rather simple questions. Either a president knows and makes foreign policy or he doesn't. Either he "structures" a veritable coup d'etat to replace the half-century-old system or he doesn't. Either the constitutionally elected leadership runs the nation's foreign affairs in and out of crisis or it doesn't.

In any case, Tanter should be required reading this ominous winter--and not only for his surgical rendition of past dithering and debacle. Far more eloquent is the unstated--the bureaucrat/expert's utter absorption in the barren geopolitical and bureaucratic gaming, his dismissal and negligence of the root policy issue of our Middle East anguish: the settlement of Palestinian sovereignty, and, at long last, the final exit of Western colonialism in all its forms.

As it is, the few hundred Marines at the Beirut airport in 1982 have become the 400,000-plus U.S. expeditionary force of 1990. And while it is poised on yet another line in the quicksand of Middle East politics, many of the same dwarfs still dance in Washington.
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Author:Morris, Roger
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1990
Words:1291
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