On November 12, 1986, I was in the West Wing of the White House on official business. After a long meeting, I made a pit stop at the downstairs men's room. While standing doing my business, the door swung open and in streamed several men. On my left was Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger. On my right was Secretary of State George Shultz. In the toilet stall was CIA Director Bill Casey. They obviously had just come out of a lengthy meeting of their own. All were stonily silent. None acknowledged any of the others. They studiously avoided eye contact at the sink, the towel dispenser and as they sought to exit the room. I sensed a definite chill between them and couldn't wait myself to get out of there. In the outside foyer, a suck-up White House flunkie greeted Shultz in a fawning voice. The Secretary stopped in his tracks and, red-faced, glowered at the man, then stormed off. Next day headlines broke open the Iran-Contra scandal. These men had just met with President Reagan and it didn't go well.
As the affair unfolded, the world became privy to a tragicomic episode in American diplomatic history, one of super-secret negotiations directly between the White House and senior Iranian officials involving a cockamamie scheme to trade weapons in return for release of American hostages in Lebanon as well as cash with which to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras. Somewhere in the mix was a birthday cake. Starring an incompetent National Security Advisor and an eager beaver Marine O-5 lieutenant colonel, this farce rivaled a Peter Sellers movie.
Following the announcement of a new turn in U.S.-Cuban relations last week, the New York Times described in "How Obama’s Undercover Statecraft Secured Three Major Accords" the president's preferred style of carrying out sensitive diplomatic negotiations through a handful of White House advisors to the exclusion of other agencies, notably the State Department. President Obama has achieved three foreign policy successes via this means: opening relations with Havana, the climate change accord with China, and the interim nuclear agreement with Tehran. Each involved some clever skulking around the globe by key White House aides. The news media and Congress were none the wiser. The results have been positive thus far.
Negotiations in general need to have some level of confidentiality. The more sensitive in nature, usually the more secrecy is warranted. Henry Kissinger was a master of this this quasi-Machiavellian way of doing business. As with Obama, the Nixon White House concentrated policy making in an oversized National Security Council staff to the virtual exclusion of the State Department. And Nixon/Kissinger were largely successful at it. But Kissinger recruited some of the best and brightest Foreign Service officers to man his operation.
As we saw in Iran-Contra, however, there are risks and dangers to confining statecraft in the hands of a few non-diplomats. We, for example, owe the cession of Eastern Europe to the Soviets to Winston Churchill's secret dealings with Stalin behind Roosevelt's back in the so-called "naughty document." This double-dealing greatly enhanced Moscow's strategic position during the Cold War.
On the other hand, involving more people runs the risk of pesky leaks. Also, the State Department's notoriously sclerotic, atomized bureaucracy has a special talent not only for turning policy into molasses, but for equivocating it to oblivion. It wasn't for no good reason that JFK referred to State as a "bowl full of jelly."
But there is a middle way, one which preserves secrecy, yet mitigates the potential for disasters. I was privileged to have been among a small number of working level officials privy to highly sensitive discussions surrounding German unification and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The talks were close-hold, yet involved experts whose input averted some very real missteps. President George H.W. Bush deserves historians' accolades for the manner in which he and his foreign policy team handled these events.
Days after the Iran-Contra story broke, Assistant Secretary of State Arnie Raphel called me in to inform me he was submitting my name to the White House to serve as an aide to President Reagan's chosen in-house investigator. "By the way," Raphel added, "You report to me and me only. Got it?" In other words, he would be controlling strictly who would be privy to such sensitive work, but would not monopolize it. My assignment was aborted at the last minute by the White House's subsequent decision to confine its internal investigation exclusively to political loyalists, a path that only stoked Congress's and the media's own investigations. One of our finest diplomats, Mr. Raphel later died in a plane crash along with the president of Pakistan.
As a mid-level Foreign Service officer, I had been involved in other highly secret contacts and discussions, even, highly unusual for a diplomat, traveling under false cover. My Foreign Service colleagues likewise are accustomed to exercising utmost discretion in supporting highly sensitive diplomatic contacts, ensuring there are no leaks. When they do occur, they more often than not emanate from the White House itself or from Congress. Carefully chosen civil servants absolutely can keep secrets while supporting delicate initiatives. This White House, however, has shown a decided lack of faith and trust in its career diplomats.
The upshot here for the Obama White House is to tread very, very carefully when conducting secret negotiations, and I don't mean regarding security. That's a given. The Obama team may have experienced great success with the three examples mentioned above. But, by continuing to carry out sensitive dealings with foreign powers via an exclusive handful of top political loyalists in the White House, they increase the risk that future such transactions could fall flat, creating public embarrassment, possibly sparking congressional investigations and setting back America's standing on the world's stage.