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Presidential Elections Have Little to Do With Shaping Foreign Policy

July 08, 1996|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — There are two long-standing principles of American foreign policy worth keeping in the back of your mind as President Clinton and his likely Republican challenger, Bob Dole, wage their fall campaigns.

One is that the differences between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are usually far less than they seem. And the second is that the disagreements submerged within the U.S. government are often greater than the public realizes.

To see a demonstration of these time-honored truths, put aside this year's campaign rhetoric and take up a bit of summer reading. "From the Shadows," a new book by former CIA Director Robert M. Gates, offers a revealing portrait of how U.S. foreign policy has been made in Washington over the last quarter of a century--and presidential campaigns are probably the least important factor on the list.

Gates, who left the government in 1993, is a classic example of the permanent foreign policy bureaucracy--the thousands of personnel in the CIA, Pentagon and State Department who stay on the job from decade to decade while the White House changes hands. As a specialist on the Soviet Union, Gates worked in the CIA and the National Security Council for five American presidents, from Richard Nixon to George Bush.

His conclusion is that, on the whole, elections didn't matter much.

"The secret all five of the presidents and their political advisors hid from the American public was the extraordinary continuity in U.S. dealings with the Soviet Union from administration to administration," Gates writes.


"Hidden because, regardless of philosophy, the public approach of challengers in our politics is usually to tear down rather than to promise to build upon the work of incumbents--especially if the incumbent is in the other party."

In perhaps the most surprising section of the book, Gates asserts that, contrary to most historical judgments, there wasn't much difference on Soviet policy between Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Carter turned the CIA loose for covert actions focused on the Soviet Union "within weeks after his inauguration," Gates says. Over the course of Carter's four-year term, these included U.S. intelligence operations in Grenada, Jamaica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Yemen and Afghanistan, as well as efforts to nurture dissent and ethnic minorities inside the Soviet Union.

"Far more than Americans or Europeans, the Soviets saw Carter as abandoning the ground rules that had governed the relationship for decades and striking out boldly on a path of confrontation and challenge," writes Gates.

After Reagan was elected, his ultraconservative transition team turned every department and agency into "a political and ideological battlefield," according to Gates. And yet those who took over the foreign policy apparatus--Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., CIA Director William J. Casey and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger--threw out the transition teams and disregarded their recommendations.

What emerges from Gates' book are the ferocious battles within America's foreign policy apparatus. The State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA all have their own interests, and they are often at odds with one another. Sometimes the differences stem from personal feuds among Cabinet members, sometimes the fights are over bureaucratic turf; but often they involve broad disagreements about foreign policy.

Throughout most of the 1980s, Gates and the CIA dueled with the State Department, most notably with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, over what was and was not happening in the Soviet Union.

Shultz was trying to negotiate arms-control agreements with the Soviets. And as part of the effort, he was trying to argue that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev represented a chance for real change. Gates remained unconvinced.

"His actions at home as of early 1986 represented no serious challenge to the Soviet state and party structure that had existed for decades," he writes.

Gates paints a surprisingly flattering picture of his adversary, Shultz. And he admits that these differences seem to be inherent in the different tasks of the State Department and the CIA.

"The nature of our [intelligence] business . . . makes of us great skeptics and pessimists," he writes. On the other hand, the approach of diplomats and negotiators like Shultz "is understandable. They must try to solve problems or negotiate agreements, and that requires some measures of optimism, a tendency to look on the bright side, to minimize the bad news or the obstacles."

The internecine foreign policy battles within Washington take on such a life of their own that it sometimes seems as though what happens overseas becomes a mere sideshow.

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