It's a short crow's flight from the State Department to the White House. But for recent secretaries of state, including Alexander Haig, it has become the greatest distance they have to cope with.
Presidents, surrounded by agreeable intimates of their personal choosing, often dread the clammy restraining hand of State Department professionals --a secretary of state's natural constituents whether he likes it or not. The more pressing the emergency, the more presidents are inclined to seek their own channels of action.
Woodrow Wilson committed the drafting of the famous Fourteen Points, as well as other duties, to Col. Edward House. FDR sent Harry Hopkins as his personal liaison with Stalin and Churchill during World War II. Richard Nixon, with the brilliant talents of Henry Kissinger to draw upon, took the trend so far as to eclipse the secretary of state altogether.
But the dual track in foreign policy making became permanently institutionalized with the 1947 National Security Act. Kissinger was one of a line of strong White House national security "advisers." The strain between Foggy Bottom and the Oval Office is now persistent and perennial.
Unless the secretary of state is content to be a cipher, he will be only one of two distinct and powerful bidders for influence on the president's judgment, with the odds by no means in his favor. The reported battle over U.S. sanctions against the Siberian gas pipeline, or over U.S. tolerance of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, are typical. At times there are two policies; at others, two or more readings of the same policy--a perfect illustration of Miles's Law: where you stand depends on where you sit. But the peculiar flavor of Ronald Reagan's own view of the world (he is prone to frame it in attitudes, not policies) has accentuated the turf problem beyond the ordinary.
It is not so much views, as differing approaches to process, that differentiate the White House and State Department. It is often whispered to presidents that State Department types suffer from disloyalty, "clientism," or "Europeanism" or some other malady that goes with the wearing of striped pants.
This is myth. The State Department tradition is to serve the president, whoever he is, and execute his policies, whatever they are. But an equally strong impulse among diplomatic professionals, hence among secretaries of state, is to strive for continuity and predictability. When White House views are essentially incantational, as Reagan's often are, execution is bound to falter. The failure through several administrations to address this institutional disorder draws strength from the curious view that it is bad form for a resigning official to state his grievances forthrightly.
No doubt Haig's prickly personality and his punctilio about the signs and emblems of personal authority, were irritants. But the main problem is that secretaries of state are cut off from the president, while White House advisers with daily access increasingly run the show. So even our best friends find it hard to decipher our fluctuating purposes, improvised with only sporadic benefit of State's institutional memory.