Argument

Washington Dateline: Watergate and Foreign Policy

Will Washington return to the business of compromise, manipulation, and deception as usual?

STF/AFP/Getty Images
STF/AFP/Getty Images

With this article, Foreign Policy begins a special feature on Washington, which will focus on the mood and behavior of people involved in foreign policy, their influence, and the implications for the future of Ameri­can policy-making. While these reports will be as cur­rent as possible, it will be apparent that in a quarterly they must be prepared about four to six weeks prior to publication date.

WASHINGTON — This is a city that thirsts for gossip and thrives on scandal, and Watergate opened all the doors — something even the Vietnam war itself could not accom­plish. It was a symbol of the times that many members of the House of Representa­tives spent an afternoon in mid-June shut­tling between the floor, where they cast the heaviest vote yet against the president’s Indochina policy, and the cloakroom, where they watched John Dean on TV.

A few months earlier, foreign policy con­versation seemed to be going out of style in Washington. The Vietnam war was once again becoming a remote control affair. For more than four years, one Nixon-Kissinger triumph after another had structured domes­tic debates if not world order. Dispirited officials at State and Defense were no longer informed sources. Reporters and columnists flocked around the only informed source in town, when he wasn’t off negotiating for the president in Paris, Moscow, or Peking. In Congress, concern was more for the role to be played on foreign policy issues than the issues themselves. And the foreign policy establishment in exile, the men who had held important jobs in previous administrations, was finding it hard to raise much of a fuss about the president’s posture on the world stage.

The Vietnam war had broken the mold of cold war assumptions and made everything debatable. The Watergate scandal got at the men who run the country and made these holders of power politically vulnerable. It is now possible not merely to talk about what is wrong, but to change it. Watergate has torn away those last veils that still covered the vital parts of the political system and exposed the power that has held the system together. It is not simply a matter of Watergate consuming White House time thus diverting minds and energies from pressing foreign policy questions.

Watergate has had at least four other con­sequences which run much deeper than loss of valuable time:

1. It has widened the fissures which the Vietnam war opened within the foreign policy establishment. Wiretapping is the raw nerve on this one.

2. It has raised in bold type the biggest for­eign policy issue of them all — what is "na­tional security"? Nixon’s May 22 apologia pro sua vita locked this issue in Watergate’s embrace.

3. It has thrust into sharp relief the new diplomacy of the Nixon Administration, whereby old enemies have become the president’s new domestic allies. The Brezhnev visit and the rumors of a similar pilgrimage by Chou en-Lai provide the symbols here.

4. It has shown signs of breaking the president’s stranglehold over the Congress on national security matters. The votes in the House and the Senate against further fund­ing of American military operations in Indo­china are straws in the wind.

Fissures in the Community

Aversion to the war, at least in general terms, had become one of the points of agree­ment that lent some measure of cohesion to the foreign policy community in Washing­ton-that group of officials, journalists, exiles from power, and congressional aides which congregates at conferences and com­municates through an intricate ritual that includes telephone calls, lunches, cocktail parties, and the columns of purveyors of high-level political gossip like Evans and Novak.

Few remained who would argue about whether we needed to get out of the war. Disagreement was over how and how fast — a vital issue for the people in Indochina whose lives were at stake, but no longer a vital political issue in Washington. Take the war away, and fissures in the foreign policy com­munity would start widening.

Who did what to help whom and why at the Ellsberg trial (to be known in the case books as the United States us. Russo et al. — the only vengeance which the Nixon Ad­ministration has gained against Ellsberg) would provide the initial glimpse into the fissures. Ellsberg’s attorneys approached al­most every notable antiwar figure and a large number of former high officials in the hopes of constructing a united front at the trial. The front never materialized because the issue, as most saw it, was not ending the war. Some saw the issue as mounting the barricades against the octopus of govern­mental secrecy. Here was a chance to strike a blow against the ridiculous classification system, the power and haughtiness that de­rives from hiding behind secrets. Others saw the issues as more complicated than govern­mental secrecy, as including the rights of individuals in government to confidentiality for some measured period of time. According to the latter, most secrets revealed would not compromise national security, but their rev­elation certainly would compromise the basis on which advisers give counsel to their polit­ical and bureaucratic superiors.

Those who are a part of this small world took careful note of who stood where on the Ellsberg trial. Motives, good and ill, were readily assigned.

At first glance, it would have seemed that the NSC wiretapping affair which was dragged into the open by the Watergate affair would have once again united the anti­war establishment group. While most of Washington concentrated on Dean and his bombshells — in the case of the old Nixon-­haters, with more pleasure than they would admit — the foreign policy types focused on the tapping itself. It was a personal kind of issue for them, since most were potential tappees, either as past or present members of government or as journalists who might be on the "enemies list." "Were you bugged, and do you know if I was?" replaced the more general "Who is up and who is down" theme of foreign policy gossip. And one might have thought that beyond its pro­viding a focus of conversation, the incident would produce a common response. What good liberal or progressive could be in favor of bugging, not only of office phones but home phones as well?

The reaction, however, was divisive ra­ther than unifying. Some, like Brookings’ Morton Halperin and columnist Joseph Kraft, were outraged, a view we share. (At least one of us, we should note, was among the tapped.) Halperin took the legal route and filed suit against Henry Kissinger, his former deputy General Alexander Haig, and a number of other luminaries down to the telephone company. The law carries stiff penalties against illegal wiretapping-at least $100 per day per offender-and the possibility that Kissinger might have to share the royalties of his next book with Halperin has caused amused comment. Kraft lashed out against "the taps in his columns, condemning Kissinger for going after his friends in the guise of seeking to protect them against the right-wing White House villains. Kraft then took ultimate Washing­ton recourse when he refused an invitation to attend Kissinger’s 50th birthday party. Some high officials of the Kennedy and John­son Administrations took umbrage at White House assertions that the tapping of NSC staff members was nothing new.

Some tappees or suspected tappees took the opposite tack. Two Kissinger aides-neither very much of a hawk on the Vietnam war and both distinctly a part of the neo-establish­ment-represented this position. Winston Lord, Kissinger’s former special assistant, spoke of the wiretaps as a necessary evil, while Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Kissinger’s for­mer European specialist and now named Under-Secretary of the Treasury, kept pub­lic silence on the subject. Both went to Kis­singer’s birthday party. Few of those who were not exercised about the tapping would say that it was morally right or practically effective, but they maintained, in effect, that individuals gave up certain personal rights when accepting the privilege of high and dis­creet position.

While much of the public debate will center on the merits and demerits of tapping, attitudes toward Henry Kissinger himself have a lot to do with who stands where.

Kissinger’s thoughts and doings have re­ceived more attention in Washington talk these last four years than his policies. What has he really been up to? Is he a good guy or a bad guy, a secret dove or an artful hawk? Was he fighting the good fight on the war in Vietnam while being careful to stand with the president publicly, or was he the real architect of Vietnamization and high demands at the negotiating table in Paris? Some look to Kissinger as the last vestige of sanity in an administration with the poten­tial for doing great harm. Others feel that he has been playing a terribly clever game with the press and his former academic col­leagues, leading them to believe that he is on their side while in fact being Nixon’s stalk­ing horse and Rasputin rolled into one.

Kissinger’s role in the wiretapping of members of his own staff, a role which he admitted only reluctantly and ambiguously under questioning, again set the establish­ment to choosing up sides. Those who have suspected him all along of being a closet hawk felt vindicated by the tapping revela­tions. Those who believed Kissinger would not do such a thing, or at least not without good reason, or who still believed that he had to be protected with so many more years of the Nixon administration to go, came to his defense.

But as with the Ellsberg trial, the Kissin­ger wiretapping episode has caused people to say and do things publicly that are not like­ly to lead to future reconciliation. Too many had gone too far to retract what they had said about Kissinger or Ellsberg. The wounds will not be readily healed, the unity of the old Washington foreign policy community will not easily be recreated. That establish­ment in its 1970’s incarnation is so diverse. the political sensitivities so finely honed, that it probably cannot be called an establish­ment in the old sense of the word.

The Strange Death of "National Security"

Do you remember the word "commit­ment"? For a while in the early 1960s. it was a term that could foreclose debate and justify American intervention and sacrifice. Then, through its overuse and misuse in official speeches about Vietnam, "commit­ment" became for many in Washington a code word that could be used only to dem­onstrate sarcastic, despairing opposition to the war. We recall one junior Foreign Ser­vice Officer who took to answering his tele­phone (at least when his friends were call­ing) in the manner of a recorded announce­ment: "Hello, State Department. We honor our commitments!" Since then, the word has almost disappeared in foreign policy discus­sions here, except to be amended or attacked. Not many debates are won, nor audiences swayed, by reference to an American "com­mitment" abroad.

A new and still more important victim of official verbicide can now be added: "na­tional security." As the whirl of Watergate revelations and widespread revulsion gained speed during the late spring and early sum­mer, the president and his defenders tried to shield or explain away more and more of their excesses under the umbrella of "na­tional security." Approval of illegal activ­ities by private White House police … the order for a key part of the cover-up … wire­tapping of reporters and White House staffers: necessary measures all, it was said, when the very future of the nation was at stake. It could not wash. Even remotely viewing the threat posed by a Weatherman in the same light as the menace of a Soviet SS-9 missile, or finding comparable the dangers of a polit­ical opponent or liberal columnist and those of a diabolical Communist agent, seemed ludicrous to most of Washington. As a re­sult, "national security" became, like "com­mitment” before it, an object for derisive satire. The president’s use of "national se­curity" was parodied in cocktail party chat­ter, in Buchwald columns, by Herblock.

The derision masked the fact that a deep nerve had been touched. For the president had uncaged an old and dangerous beast: the use of foreign policy to beat down do­mestic opposition. And he had done so in the starkest terms since the days of McCar­thy’s lists. There are two faces, of course, to this animal: just as some Republicans have called in the old Red (now Radical) Menace when needed, so some Democrats used Madison Avenue to portray Goldwa­ter’s finger on the nuclear button. In each case, the political victims properly felt fouled.

Thus, one of the saddest effects of the president’s effort to wrap White House Plumbers and White House plots in the flag: the prospect of a reasoned national debate on the real meaning of "national security" and its requirements now seems dimmer than ever. In Washington, in the season of Water­gate, "national security" was being defined by domestic hatreds, and, ironically, the big­gest losers seemed to be those who take a Nixonian view of the world. To the degree that "national security" arguments seem funny or fearsome rather than the serious substantive matter they should be, those who want to maintain a prudential level of de­fense spending will find it harder to make their case. In this way, Nixon has done harm to something he seems to care about very much. For those who have been waging the fight to reduce defense expenditures these past five years, the demise of the concept of national security will come as a godsend. Nixon’s invocation of "national security" has proved the difference in countless con­gressional votes to eliminate certain weapons systems, cut back on manpower, and reduce levels of spending. Henceforth, the president and his budget opponents on the Hill will clash on more equal terms.

Some of Our Best Friends are Russians

You can always tell who your friends are by who stands with you in bad times. And, in case anyone has not yet noticed, some of Nixon’s best friends are Russians and Chi­nese. Leonid Brezhnev proved his love for the president when he came for his week­ long embrace of Nixon in June-at a time when even fellow conservative Republicans were keeping a safe distance from the White House. Top Chinese leaders were not yet officially scheduled for a White House sum­mit, but the Chinese representative here was flown by an official U.S. airplane to San Clemente for a well-publicized meeting with the president. Almost as important was the deafening absence of outcry back in Russia and China about Nixon’s troubles. In times past, it would have taken a mere smidgeon of a Watergate to crank up the Communist press against the corrupt capitalist system and the phoniness of western democracy. But as Brezhnev said before departing for Wash­ington, it would he "indiscreet" of him to use Watergate against Nixon.

America’s traditional allies were not near­ly so helpful to the man in the White House. president Georges Pompidou and president Nixon held their summit in an appropriate location: Iceland. Little was accomplished beyond the French being reinforced in their view that Nixon and Kissinger are seeking to get the Europeans to make economic concessions in return for a continued U.S. troop presence, at something like present levels, on the continent. And, according to one Japanese observer, "many Japanese take a certain cynical pleasure" in Nixon’s pre­dicament. If you can’t shock back, at least you can snicker at the shocker getting a jolt of his own.

It is obvious that Nixon needs his friends in Moscow and Peking. They, of course, are his partners in building a generation of peace, but equally importantly, they are among the few factors which prevent the president’s reputation from falling to pieces. The political message so vital to the president’s image is the same now as it was in 1959 in the kitchen debate with Khrush­chev-Nixon knows how to talk to Russians.

The Soviet and Chinese motives for this political embrace are more a matter of guess­work. but probably spring from similar sources. They have a real stake in the political future of Richard M. Nixon-as they see it. For years, to the extent that they differen­tiated between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans were perceived as the real en­emies and Democrats as potentially pliable.

It took Moscow and Peking 25 years to decide that they could get more out of the Republicans than the Democrats, that the root restraint on Democratic presidents all along had been fear of a right-wing Repub­lican reaction. But then they realized that they could deal with the potential reactors and short-circuit the political problems.

As is usual with the learning of lessons, it comes too late and only after reality has changed. A Democratic president would still be more vulnerable to right-wing attacks than a Nixon, but not anywhere to the de­gree of the past. The foreign policy con­sensus, the parameters of the politically per­missible, now would allow a Democrat to do about what Nixon has been doing.

But the Russians, at least, are not readily led to see it that way. They look at Senator Henry Jackson-at his holding up of trade and credit arrangements with the Soviet Union over the matter of Jewish emigration and his call for the postponement of the Brezhnev visit-as hints that the Democrats might prove less reliable than Nixon. Some Russians in Washington have even reached the point of convincing themselves that Dem­ocratic liberals would always prefer Mao to Moscow. The Chinese, on the other hand, see in Nixon, it seems, someone who will be tough in his dealings with the Russians; they apparently regard the Democrats as more Russian-oriented and more likely to cave before Russian pressures.

These pro-Nixon, anti-Democratic atti­tudes on the part of Russian and Chinese leaders are not without some foundation and will not be easily shaken. The Communist giants will continue to aid the president in his time of woe. But just as interesting as the fact that Brezhnev and Mao were trying to help Nixon is the fact that they could not help him very much. Even as Nixon and Brezhnev were penning their numerous trea­ties and understandings, Watergate contin­ued to dominate the gossip and the news.

Contrary to the alarmed cries of some who would like to see Watergate simply dis­solve like the morning mists around San Clemente, the summit showed that the pur­suit of the scandal by the press and Congress had not crippled the president’s ability to deal with other nations. Foreign leaders are interested in what Washington can do for or to them. The president’s popularity in­terests them only as it affects the deals he can make. He did deal with Brezhnev. A president’s domestic difficulties can only lim­it his foreign policy on those issues in which the Congress must be involved. And many believe it is about time that power on those issues was better shared.

The Congress Awakes

Congressman Les Aspin (D-Wisconsin) has been having a field day in his campaign against Pentagon waste. Aspin was getting an especially good play in the Washington press for his accurate charges of inflated flight pay and other assorted military excesses. No doubt his discoveries would always be good copy. But Aspin demonstrated a key to the headlines while Watergate dominated the papers: revelations and more revelations were what was wanted when the public palate for evidence of Executive error was so well whetted.

His success demonstrated the fact that Watergate has altered the political terms of trade between the Congress and the Execu­tive. Consider the votes on the U.S. bomb­ing of Cambodia. What odds would you have given a year ago against the Senate Ap­propriations Committee’s voting without dissent for a bombing cutoff? Or Senator Scott’s setting a date certain for the end of his allegiance to the president on Indochina? Or a solid majority of the House defying the president on this issue? Yet it happened, and the president was forced to use the same tac­tics on a key foreign policy issue that he had been using on mere domestic matters. He had to veto one measure and threaten more of the same, vetoes without end, in order to gain six weeks more bombing. Not long ago, some veiled hints about diplomatic progress, a little flag waving. a reminder about the re­sponsibilities of the Commander in Chief, and perhaps a few phone calls, could bull­doze the Congress into paying for all the bombing the Administration could want.

Part of the president’s power loss on In­dochina was inherent in the Paris agreement. Once U.S. troops were out of Vietnam, even some conservative congressmen argued, why keep a toe in the waters? Once the prisoners were home, why risk losing more?

But there were stronger reasons still why the old tactics would not work, why the well had run dry when the White House tried once again to argue for more bullets and bombs in order to keep its hand strong in secret diplomatic maneuverings. Even be­fore Watergate blossomed, many members of Congress were simply getting tired of being pushed around.

And Prince Watergate kissed the sleeping Congress, reinforcing its mood of indepen­dence and altering the political balance be­tween the president and the politicians at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. For years, many moderates had simply wanted the war over for America. But they dared not vote to end it, fearing political retalia­tion by the president. Watergate made it safe to say and vote what they thought. The president was damaged goods himself and therefore could not threaten the political fortunes of congressmen who crossed him on Cambodia. And as Watergate diverted pub­lic attention from Indochina, few congress­men seemed worried any more about possible efforts by the White House to lay on them the responsibility for "losing Cambodia."

As the costs of angering the president were reduced, so also were the benefits of pleasing him. As an aide in the House put it, "Who wants to be thought of now as one of the president’s men? And why should we be so anxious any more to receive those little signs of favor, like invitations to White House receptions? They are great when the White House is glamorous. Not so today:’

An exchange in the floor debate about the bombing between two hawks of yester­year, only one of whom has kept the faith, told the story:

Mr. Kemp (R-N.Y.): "America and the president as our leader has to be credible all over the world."

Mr. Hays (D-Ohio): "The preceding speaker … really left me a little bit cold about the credibility of the White House. Apparently he has not been watching televi­sion in the last few days."

As if to underline the freeing of the House from its old presidential fixation, the House Foreign Affairs Committee moved beyond its Senate counterpart in its view of congres­sional war powers, reporting a tougher bill than the Senate’s version by a stunning 31-4 vote on June 15. Last year, the House was far more timid. One committee staff mem­ber laid the shift in the House to Watergate: "Before, you heard people here say that they had to go along with the president’s judg­ment on foreign affairs. But what kind of judgment does Watergate show?"

It remains to be seen whether the new approach to Indochina and war powers is a congressional declaration of independence on foreign affairs or a transitory trip that will last only while Watergate limits the president’s powers. The answer may lie in the course run by the scandal itself.

The makers and transmitters of Washing­ton gossip (which is known nationally as news) aren’t asking yet what this all adds up to. The momentary pain and pleasure of the Watergate affair blots out for them the future — except on the issue of whether or not Nixon will be around by January 1977.

The experienced viewer of the Washing­ton scene would be tempted to dismiss the future. Watergate, he might say, will blow over and Washington will return to the business of compromise, manipulation, and deception as usual. Perhaps if Watergate were to vanish tomorrow or even in two months, such would be the case. But Water­gate — the hearings, the trials, the revelations — will be actively part of the news for at least another year. In its longevity and its dimensions, it may establish new political styles and standards. An accustomed toler­ance of deceit and acceptance of arrogance may be modified by public disgust at the excesses of the last few years. What Lyndon Johnson could not accomplish with the cred­ibility gap, the Nixon White House may have achieved through the wondrous works of G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, and friends. Perhaps Senator Lowell Weicker was acting for most Americans on June 29, when he threw the toughest of the White House toughs, Charles Colson, out of his office.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola