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Shultz: Missing in Action?

August 23, 1987|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus, a Washington-based journalist, is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey.

WASHINGTON — Where is George P. Shultz? This is a question asked by a growing number of congressional Republicans and State Department officials. The secretary of state, after a bravura performance before the congressional Iran- contra panel, has slipped from sight. "Shultz seems out of it," says one Senate Republican. "We are afraid he has chosen not to play an active role."

This concern stems from the secretary's apparent inability to take the lead on some of the major issues of the day, from the crisis in the Persian Gulf--where Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger is calling the shots--to Central America--where Shultz's commitment to the discredited Elliott Abrams has diminished the department's effectiveness. "Only arms control seems to spark his interest," says one Capitol Hill staffer.

The guessing game extends even to Shultz's own bailiwick, and has increased since his testimony. "There is a creeping uneasiness here," said one State Department official after reflecting on Shultz's performance before the congressional investigating panels. "Shultz was willing to resign over perks, but not over principle."

Yet a number of State Department officials say, despite or perhaps even because of his highly praised performance at the Iran- contra hearings, the secretary has become still more distracted. "I think Shultz found his laudatory reception slightly embarrassing," says a State Department official. "After all, the description he gave of his passivity was not exactly heroic."

Adding to Shultz's discomfort may be the sources of the good reviews--it was often congressional Democrats singing his praises. And the secretary has every right to suspect them of offering left-handed compliments. For example, this commentary offered by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), "Shultz has certainly been a cool head that has not always prevailed. He contrasts favorably with the White House staff."

Officials at the White House believe that Shultz's testimony about the guerrilla warfare within the Administration hurt the President more than that of any other witness during the Iran- contra hearing. But, according to one White House source, "The word went out to support our secretary. He's the only one we've got."

If this implies a less than ringing endorsement of the secretary of state, it is a minor problem when compared to Shultz's perspective on the White House. For these days it isn't easy promoting Ronald Reagan and his policies.

To begin with, the Iran- contra scandal has prematurely aged the White House. One former White House staffer who recently joined a Wall Street investment firm explained, "We began our lame duck period 12 months early." And personnel shifts caused by the scandal have been even more profound. Shultz now has to work with a new national security adviser, Frank C. Carlucci, and the new White House chief of staff, Howard H. Baker Jr.

Coinciding with the changes at the White House has been a major shift in power on Capitol Hill. With the Democrats regaining control of the Senate, the secretary can no longer quietly work out deals with the Republican leadership. In the past he could rely on Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) to assist him, quietly and effectively, on a wide range of issues from the Philippines to foreign aid. Lugar's successor, Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), though a former foreign service officer himself, is nonetheless often a major antagonist. Most recently, Pell led congressional efforts to prevent and then delay Administration plans to reflag Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf.

Still, many of Shultz's problems are longstanding and of his own making. National Security Council staffers accuse him of exhibiting the same pettiness in dealings with Carlucci that characterized his relationships with Reagan's former national security advisers, including Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter and Robert C. McFarlane. "Shultz is just as pompous as ever," says one NSC staffer. "Our guy arrives at a meeting alone and Shultz shows up with 25 aides and security people."

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