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Thursday, May 11, 2017

“Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State”, by George P. Shultz

1184 pages, Charles Scribner’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0684193250

During the Reagan Revolution, that sadly incomplete counter-revolution of the 80s against the excesses of the 60s and malaise of the 70s, two kinds of conservatives competed for influence in The Gipper’s Washington: there were the “movement conservatives” – hot-eyed, ideological and conservatively radical; and then there were the “true conservatives” – men and women who believed in changing only what needed to be changed in order to conserve the fabric of a world they felt comfortable with, like Edmund Burke…and like George Shultz. The main theme of Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, Shultz’s memoirs of his time in Reagan’s Cabinet, is a success story. When he succeeded Alexander Haig as Secretary of State the world was in a tense, angry mess, but by the time he left at the end of the Reagan Administration the Cold War had been won by the West, relations with the Soviet Union were almost miraculously friendly, and Schultz’s own personal relationship with Eduard Shevardnadze had contributed significantly to that improvement. Everywhere one looked Soviet influence in the world was fading while American influence was filling the spaces left by the receding red tide.

The struggles within the Reagan Administration, though, loom at least as large in Shultz’s narrative as the conflicts in the world outside the Beltway. There was, first of all, the bitter personal feud with Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense. Weinberger (the lawyer from northern California) and Shultz (the economist from New York City) had bumped into one another all through their respective rises, first in the Nixon Administration and then again at the Bechtel Corporation. In Reagan’s Cabinet they found themselves sharing responsibility for that amorphous concept called National Security, and ended up feuding constantly, with these quarrels punctuating Shultz’s memoirs like an out-of-tune leitmotiv (there are exactly one-hundred references to Weinberger in the index, some of them lengthy, none of them complimentary; almost the only unedifying thing in this long, careful and fair-minded book is this obsessional carping). Shultz’s more serious problems, however, were with Reagan’s national security advisers and their staff, and with the CIA: Bill Casey, Bill Clark, Bud McFarlane, Admiral Poindexter, Oliver North and the whole cast of intriguers and desperadoes, Middle Eastern and native-born, to whom they were incessantly trying to hand over American foreign policy. Instinctively, President Reagan shared the Manichean worldview of these bravoes and ideologues and squirmed when Shultz distanced the United States from General Pinochet in Chile or consented to the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines (desperate, shady sonsovbitches, to be sure, but the world is full of desperate, shady sonsovbitches – and besides, they were our desperate, shady sonsovbitches). Yet nothing is more impressive in this book than Reagan’s instinct never to allow his moderate Secretary of State to be totally cut out of the loop.

At 1100+ pages this is a very long book and not a light one in any sense of the word. Shultz’s manner is ponderous, his self-esteem is unshakeable, his intellectual complacency infuriating…yet this is an important book and one which deserves to raise his already solid reputation. His account of the Iran Contra affair contains new material (though it is more wholehearted in its condemnation of the Iranian arms deals than of the Contra aid, as it should be), while diplomatic historians will find his lengthy accounts of the Reagan Administration’s dealings with Gorbachev and of the part of the Middle East peace process that happened on his watch very useful. Through it all George P. Shultz emerges from his own account (and I do not think this can be entirely faked) as a man with firm principles governing the way the United States ought to behave and a firm set of lines which he was not prepared to compromise in his personal conduct. His book will not perhaps be much read for entertainment, but his reputation, I suspect, will rise with the passing of time. More importantly, this long, honest and serious account of the way American foreign policy worked in a period of exceptional opportunity confirms an unfashionable but, I think now unavoidable, impression: that the United States has been fortunate indeed in the quality of its diplomats at Foggy Bottom.

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