On Diplomats-in-Chief

Here is a question that has fascinates: how to account for the disastrous foreign policy of George W. Bush, when his foreign policy team returned to office in 2001 as the most credentialed and accomplished group of foreign policy professionals Washington had seen in the modern nat-sec era? How did the men and women who won the Cold War, shepherded the reunification of Germany, managed the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, secured democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and orchestrated two successful wars (in Panama and in the Persian Gulf) under Reagan and Bush I manage to mess up things so badly under Bush II?

One potential answer is that not all of the Bush I team made it into Bush II. Brent Scowcraft’s apprentice Condoleezza Rice inherited his position, and other members of his team (such as Richard Haas) also found plum spots; Dick Cheney returned to office himself, and many of those who worked closely with him at the Pentagon (Wolfowitz, Khalizad, Feith, Hadley, Libby) also found places in the new Bush administration. Colin Powell returned, and brought Richard Armitage along with him. But one faction that seems to have been left out the spoils was that of James Baker and his apprentices. The only Bakerite to reach prominent office under Bush II was Robert Zoellick, who initially was installed as the USTR Rep, and thus was isolated from the national security issues that dominated the the younger Bush’s presidency. 

How much did James Baker matter? Dennis Ross, who saw the diplomatic angle of Cold War’s conclusion up close as one of Baker’s senior deputies at the State Department, believes that the personal attention paid by Baker and Bush I to diplomacy was critical to that administration’s victories. One way he measures this attention is through the time both men spent in personal contact with other heads of state. Ross describes what this required of Bush and Baker in his 2007 book Statecraft: And How to Restore American Standing in the World. Here is his description of the diplomatic labor that went into the reunification of Germany and its inclusion in NATO:

The diplomatic efforts at the highest levels of the administration were remarkable for their extensive, intensive, and time-consuming nature. The president and the secretary of state conducted a highly personal diplomacy that involved an extraordinary number of face-to-face meetings with other leaders. Certainly phone calls were made, especially in the interim between meetings or to brief other leaders on meetings that had just taken place with their fellow leaders. This was especially true with both Kohl and Gorbachev. Following a meeting with one, President Bush would place a call to brief the other on where things now stood. These were not perfunctory phone calls; they were highly substantive and were designed to move the process along or undo a false impression that might otherwise become rooted and create problems. Though these calls,  and meetings at lower levels, were an essential part of the diplomacy, there can be no doubt that the face-to-face meetings at the president’s and secretary’s level were the heart of the effort.

To give an idea of the scope and intensity of the personal diplomacy of the president and the secretary of state, it is worth noting that President Bush met Chancellor Kohl in either strictly bilateral settings or on the margins of broader multilateral events nine times over a period of roughly one year. (Four of those meetings were in only bilateral settings.) He saw Prime Minister Thatcher eight times during the same period, of which three of the meetings were for exclusively bilateral purposes. He also saw President Mitterrand eight times at many of the same multilateral events, and had two meetings set exclusively for their bilateral discussions. With Gorbachev, he held two high-profile summit meetings during this period.

The Baker meetings were far more numerous, totaling close to thirty separate encounters with each of his German, British, French, and Soviet counterparts—-many on the margins of multilateral events during this same time period Of course, in many cases he visited their capitals for meetings, or they visited Washington. When he visited foreign capitals, he would see not only the foreign minister but also the president or prime minister—and, of course, he would have opportunities to speak publicly in each location. I cite the number of meetings—which was extraordinary and certainly has no parallel with any other president—only to give an an indication of the scope of what was involved. [1]

A similar amount of work went into the preparations for the Gulf War:

Much as in the German case, the intensity and scope of the personal diplomacy conducted by the president and the secretary of state were extraordinary. While he held fewer face-to-face meetings than during the German unification process, President Bush nonetheless met all the leaders in the coalition (including Gorbachev twice), and his telephonic diplomacy earned him the nickname the “mad dialer.” From the outset he was on the phone, calling our ambassador at UN to give him instructions or speaking to the Saudi king Fahd and Egyptian president Mubarak to make sure they would be responsive. These were not “check the box” calls; he sought to gain support or to reinforce the positions and confidence of those who might be wavering-and at certain points and junctures, especially on the eve of transition from air war to ground war, he held long phone conversations with Gorbachev and others.

For his part, Baker’s travels were exhaustive and exhausting. After issuing the joint statement with Shevardnadze, he returned home to take part in an NSC meeting with the president and and then turned around almost immediately and flew to Turkey to work out several understandings with Turkish prime minister Ozal. We required an agreement with Turkey over cutting the Iraq oil pipeline and using Turkish bases in the event of war with Iraq. The meeting also provided the Turk the opportunity to outline what they needed to sustain these positions, and we agreed to consult on each step should additional pressure needed to be brought to bear against Saddam Hussein. Next, Baker flew to Brussels to gain NATO endorsement of our steps vis-a-vis Turkey—a NATO member—and put the alliance on the record against Iraq. 

 Baker’s subsequent trips, most of which involved going first to the Middle East and then to Moscow and back to Europe before returning home, focused on holding the coalition together even as he pursued different purposes: first the tin-cup exercise; then the effort to discreetly  explain to coalition members why we were moving from a deterrence-only military posture to one that would allow us to use force offensively is necessary—and the additional monies and bases we would need for such an increase in forces; then the around-the-world effort to gauge support for the “all necessary means” resolution; and, finally, one last set of visits to Middle Eastern and NATO countries both before and after meeting with Tariq Aziz in Geneva to hold the line and prevent any backsliding or division in the coalition in the days leading up to the end of the ultimatum period.[2]

In Statecraft, Ross is more critical of the means the Bush II team used than the ends they pursued. Ross seems to believe that if Bush II’s team had put in the diplomatic labor that Baker and Bush I did, they would have been able to create a coalition in favor of invading Iraq to equal that amassed in 1991. This assumes that all of the Bush II team would have seen such a coalition as desirable; in reality the demonstration that America could and would act alone to reshape the globe was for many a central reason for invading in the first place. But not all were so hostile to coalition-building as such. For them, the comparative lack of time given to diplomacy, consultation, and negotiation in the run up to Iraq may be more a reflection of experience than attitudes.

None of the major players of Bush II saw George H.W. Bush and James Baker’s diplomatic campaign up close. The people working in the Pentagon c. ’90-’91 would have been prone, by nature of their position, to take these many labors for granted. What they did not take for granted was the need to build up domestic support for any grand endeavors abroad. Those who worked in the Pentagon were acutely aware they almost did not get congressional authorization for the Gulf War. They personally experienced the bitterness of the Vietnam homefront, and what it meant to fight with a nation divided. All of them knew they had been thrown out of office in ’92 because George H.W. Bush had spent more time talking with other heads of state than he did explaining to the American people what this focus on foreign affairs meant for them. This seems true even for Powell and Armitage, the most invasion-skeptical of the major players. Powell’s famous UN presentation, to pick an easy example, was directed just as much towards domestic as international audiences. The four days he spent on that was four days James Baker would have spent jetting across the Middle East.

Little surprise then, the results of all this. George W. Bush lost his UN resolutions. But he won his next election.

It is a tough cookie to crack; I have no ready made answer. In his four years in power George H.W. Bush did more good for the world, and America’s position in it, than most two-term presidents ever manage. But he never won his own second term. Successful grand strategy requires a devoted diplomat-in-chief; successful electoral strategy means devoting as little time to diplomacy as possible. 

 Square pegs. Round holes. And a superpower at stake.

To read some of my other thoughts on American statecraft, try the posts  “Give No Heed to the Walking Dead, ” “Wanted: A Stupid Proof Grant Strategy,” and “America Will Always Fail at Regional Expertise.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Dennis Ross, Statecraft: Restoring American Standing in the World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2007), 39-40.

[2] ibid, 90.

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All of them knew they had been thrown out of office in '92 because George H.W. Bush had spent more time talking with other heads of state than he did explaining to the American people what this focus on foreign affairs meant for them.

This makes me think of Henry Kissinger talking about Castlereagh in A World Restored.

I remember that election well. GHWB could have made a much stronger case for reelection. Also, his jeering repudiation of his pledge of no new taxes was shattering to his base. Many angry lifelong Conservatives voted for Perot as a result. GHWB seemed to believe that the voting public was an idiot that needed to be placated, not his employer. The loss of Lee Atwater, who managed the first election and would have managed the second one cannot be underestimated. Maybe against a weak candidate he might have had a chance, but he ran against one of the best politicians we have ever had, and got eaten alive.

@Anon- I answered your question the last time you asked it. See that post.

@Lex- GHWB was a better statesman than politician, to his detriment.