Jacob Heilbrunn, "The Great Equivocator," The New Republic, Vol. 216, no. 12, March 24, 1997


One of the customs of the times is that, every so often, a presidential nominee must be destroyed- Borked -by the opposition to get even for the last Borking by the other side. This season, an inoffensive man who has championed bipartisan establishmentarianism all his career, Anthony Lake, President Clinton's first-term national security adviser, and now his choice for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has been targeted by congressional Republicans as revenge for John Tower, George Bush's first choice as secretary of defense, whose nomination was scuttled by congressional Democrats after they leaked raw FBI files on Tower's boozing and tarting to the press. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, who voted against Robert Bork's nomination-and Tower's-before switching to the GOP in 1994, is eager to prove his loyalty to his new party. Already Shelby has managed to postpone Lake's formal hearing until March 11, and threatens not to hold a hearing at all unless Lake releases his raw FBI files.

The Borking, or rather Towering, of Lake centers on several charges. The first is that Lake's unwillingness to condemn Alger Hiss on the November 24 edition of NBC's "Meet the Press" shows that Lake is soft on traitors and on communist spying in this country, an unwelcome trait in a CIA director. The second charge, aired in the January 27 issue of National Review, tends in the opposite direction; it holds that Lake possesses a dangerous and "largely unrecognized taste for the cloak-and-dagger life." This charge finds its genesis in Lake's 1994 approval of Iranian arms shipments to Bosnia and his failure to inform Congress; his putative cover-up of human rights violations in Haiti; and the NSC's supposed involvement in Clinton fund-raising scandals. A third charge is that Lake is guilty of malversation, the evidence being a token $5,000 fine he was assessed by the Justice Department for failing to sell several stock holdings promptly.

The Republican bill of wrongs is not impressive, and the assault has to some degree backfired. Robert Gates, a former director of the CIA, endorsed Lake in an oped in the January 29 Wall Street Journal, and moderate GOP Senators Richard Lugar and John Chafee have lauded him. Repelled by Shelby's partisan snipes, the consensus of the thoughtful, sensible foreign policy and intelligence establishment is that Lake should be confirmed, and quickly.

Should he? In fact, there is a strong case against confirming Lake; it is just not the case the Republicans have made. The problem with Lake is not that he is too ideological. It is that he is not ideological enough. The right is right to focus on Lake's refusal to take a stand on Hiss's guilt, but wrong about what it means. Lake waffled not because of some lingering affinity for communism, but because the Hiss case hits Lake in his blind spot. Lake's view of the world, decisively shaped by the central event of his young adulthood, the Vietnam War, is rooted in moral ambiguity and ambivalence. From Cambodia to the Soviet Union, from Bosnia to the Middle East, Lake's career-long penchant has been to evade unpleasant realities and elide the differences imposed by clear moral choices.

In his actions and speeches as NSC adviser, Lake has tried to have it both ways, to appear both a realist and an idealist. Rhetorically, Lake is a crusading liberal internationalist; practically, he shrinks from the use of American force abroad. Like his boss, President Clinton, Lake has been genuinely tormented by the choices confronting him-but, time and time again, he has managed his torment by choosing not to choose. Hiss, guilty or not? Pol Pot, threat or blessing? Bosnia, civil war or genocide? In the mind of Anthony Lake, the answer to all of these has been: Who can really say?

Anthony Lake began his professional life on the far eastern front of John F. Kennedy's new frontier. In a July 20, 1975, cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Lake recalled that, after seeing JFK on the campaign trail in 1960, "I wrote home that I wanted to concentrate on Asia because that was where the human problems were most intense, and I hoped to contribute in a small way to their alleviation." Entering the foreign service in 1962, Lake became a star of his class-his chief rival was the equally ambitious Richard Holbrooke. In 1963, both Lake and Holbrooke went to Vietnam, where they served as assistants to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Initially, Lake was in his element. He learned Vietnamese, and he reveled in the sense of adventure and danger. But, as the war dragged on, Lake's wife, Antonia, turned against it; Lake began to have reservations, ones that would eventually alter his perceptions about America's practical ability and moral right to decide between right and wrong in the conduct of nations, and to enforce its decision.

By and large, Lake suffered his doubts quietly. When his tour in Vietnam was over, he went back to school, earning a master's degree in public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton, then returned to government. In 1969, Lake was appointed special assistant to Richard Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was fascinated by Lake; Kissinger biographer Walter Isaacson writes that Kissinger saw his special assistant as "his fair-haired young intellectual, an idealistic foreign service officer with the brains and breeding that Kissinger admired." Mutual disillusionment was inevitable. Lake became frustrated when the complicated timetables for a joint American and North Vietnamese withdrawal that he drew up went nowhere in the Paris peace negotiations conducted by Kissinger, Holbrooke and Averell Harriman. Meanwhile, Lake's wife was-literally-outside the White House gates marching against the war.

In May 1970, Lake joined Roger Morris and Winston Lord in a last-ditch effort to dissuade Kissinger from expanding the secret bombing of Cambodia. The effort failed. It was, anyway, a limited effort. As Kissinger pointed out in his memoir, White House Years, Lake & Co. did not object to the bombing of Cambodia per se, but only to deep-penetration bombing; "the alternatives proposed were," Kissinger noted, "an evasion of our hard choices, a sop to consciences, not a guide to action." An evasion, you might say, that would become habitual.

After his resignation, Lake returned to Princeton, where he earned a Ph.D. with a study of American foreign policy toward Rhodesia. There, his conflicted worldview and his ability to ignore that conflict soon manifested themselves. According to a New York Times Magazine piece, Lake responded to a question on his written exam for the Ph.D. about realism in foreign policy by taking the hard-nosed Kissingerian line. After seeing a film on Nazism that evening, he returned the next day to astonish his professors in his oral examination by attacking realism. In 1972, Lake left Princeton to work on Edmund Muskie's ill-fated presidential campaign-a move that prompted Kissinger to begin wiretapping Lake-and then spent several years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and, later, at an organization called International Voluntary Services, a kind of private Peace Corps.

But Vietnam remained Lake's obsession. He provided a revealing glimpse of his views in a lengthy March 19, 1975, Washington Post op-ed titled "AT STAKE IN CAMBODIA: EXTENDING AID WILL ONLY PROLONG THE KILLING." The article, which was entered several times into the Congressional Record, was directed at Lake's old boss, Kissinger. It began by reciting the standard liberal line that Vietnam was not a war of aggression by the North against the South. It was, Lake wrote, a civil war. The distinction was fundamental. Since Vietnam was a civil war, and both sides were nationalists, the U.S. should view the struggle with equanimity. The North might even be morally superior to the South.

Developing the idea, Lake applied this logic to Cambodia. "Cambodia," he explained, "must be recognized as a civil war, not an international war, as Vietnam should have been so long ago." Lake went on to hail the Khmer Rouge, despite the common knowledge that they were slaughtering innocents: "A further measure of damage-limitation would involve adopting a diplomatic and rhetorical position which eschewed bitter attacks on Lon Nol's enemies. They are indeed supported by Hanoi, Peking, and Moscow. But, to the extent we know much about them, they include many Khmer nationalists, Communist and non-Communist. Once they gain power, we must hope for as much nationalism on their part as possible." Indeed, Lake called for "an immediate, peaceful turning over of power" to the Khmer Rouge. "This," he concluded, "would stop the final, useless killing."

Though Lake attacked Kissinger in print, he was careful not to break the unwritten codes of the foreign policy establishment. When Lake sued Kissinger for wiretapping him, he did it as quietly as he had resigned. But Holbrooke played the game more masterfully. When Jimmy Carter became president, it was Holbrooke, to Lake's dismay, who became one of the youngest assistant secretaries of state in history. Lake had to settle for heading the State Department's policy planning staff.

Still, Lake ended up providing the intellectual scaffolding for Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's new approach to foreign policy. That scaffolding rested on a belief now firmly held by Lake and many in the younger foreign policy establishment of which he was a charter member: in a cold war world full of complex, dangerous and morally ambivalent choices, America's proper role was to stay out of trouble. The example of Vietnam, wrote Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann, proved that the U.S. should focus on global economic and social justice rather than the turnip ghost of communist insurgencies abroad: "the best policy is one of prophylactic accommodation."

These were the words Carter and Vance and Lake lived by. It was Lake who authored Carter's 1977 speech at Notre Dame decrying America's "inordinate fear of communism." Vance insisted that the U.S. take Soviet professions of good intent on arms control at face value, and that the U.S. not become obsessed by rivalry with the Kremlin. In a speech to the African Studies Association, Lake spelled out this view: "we have come to look at the problems of the Third World more in their own light.... We can do so because we have come to appreciate better the limits to the influence of both the Soviet Union and the United States.... " But it was precisely Third World humiliations that ended up undoing the Carter administration: first the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran, then the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Power politics triumphed over the ambivalent moralism espoused by Vance and Lake.

When Ronald Reagan entered office with a foreign policy platform diametrically opposed to Carter's, Lake retreated to Mount Holyoke College, where he taught and tended his cattle farm. He remained involved in foreign affairs on the national level as a writer. His writings suggested that he had learned some lessons from the Carter administration's mistakes. In books such as Somoza Falling, he pondered the Carter administration's maladroit attempts to push Tehran and Managua toward reform. But Lake never overcame his reluctance to make the hard choices, to distinguish between ally and adversary. In a book titled Our Own Worst Enemy, cowritten with Leslie Gelb and I.M. Destler, Lake deplored the politicization of American foreign policy that had taken place and declared that "We need ... to seek to recapture the good that the old Establishment represented-namely, a centrist political force that can help the country stay on a steadier and publicly supportable policy course."

What Lake understood by "supportable" became clear in a 1984 Foreign Affairs article titled "FOUR MORE YEARS: DIPLOMACY RESTORED?," written by Lake and Gelb, who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations. Lake and Gelb complained that Reagan believed that "Washington's policies should not have to adjust to the world-strong reassertive America could make the world adjust to Washington." Gelb and Lake maintained that disarray in the administration had led to a deterioration of U.S.Soviet relations and warned that the Reagan administration bore the responsibility for the Soviet walkout of the talks on intermediate-range nuclear weapons stationed in Europe. The Soviets, they wrote, "seemed to be sending a message to the American electorate: there could be no genuine arms control while Reagan remained president."

Three years later, Lake had to reverse himself: the Soviets had capitulated on the INF treaty and were pulling out of Afghanistan. In an April 24, 1988, New York Times op-ed, Lake described the INF treaty as "a marked success for an administration that is supposed to be tottering on its last legs." But, still, Lake could not bring himself to admit that an approach he regarded as fundamentally wrong-and worse, impolite-had worked. He depicted the accommodation with the Soviet Union as the result of a change of heart in the Reagan administration rather than in the Kremlin. He applauded the results, but failed to recognize an important cause-Reagan's intransigence. Instead, for Lake, the important question was, as ever, "could the beginnings of a new selective bipartisanship be visible?"

By the early 1990s, Lake's views appeared to have evolved. He was one of the key interlocutors with the hawkish Democrats who supported Clinton's election in 1992. And he seemed to have come around on the issue of force; he pushed Clinton during the campaign and in the interregnum to take a strong stand against the Serbs, and Clinton did. But, in office, Clinton abandoned the get-tough approach, and Lake largely stood by. Unlike Madeleine Albright, Lake would not prod Clinton to live up to his campaign rhetoric. Instead, he retreated to the thinking of his nonage. Just as he had viewed the Khmer Rouge as a nationalist force, and just as he had seen the Vietnam War as a civil war, so he now saw Bosnia in the same light. The old ideas of moral equivalence between warring parties once again took precedence. In late November, one aide to then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright recalled that Lake would interrupt meetings by "reciting the names of obscure Vietnamese hamlets" as he worried himself into indecision over the consequences of intervention. When Albright famously confronted then-Chief of Staff Colin Powell on his unwillingness to use force in Bosnia, Powell recollected that Lake stood up for him. "You know, Madeleine," Powell remembered him saying, "the kinds of questions Colin is asking about goals are exactly the ones the military never asked during Vietnam."

Lake became famous for chairing deliberations that never arrived at conclusions. Participants in NSC meetings still say that the meetings only ran smoothly and produced coherent results when they were headed by Lake's former deputy (and current national security adviser), Sandy Berger. In his memoirs, Powell recounts that "the discussions continued to meander like graduate-student bull sessions or the think-tank seminars in which many of my new colleagues had spent the last twelve years while their party was out of power. Backbenchers sounded off with the authority of cabinet officers."

ANTHONY LAKE, BY VINT LAWRENCE FOR THE NEW REPUBLIC

There were exceptions to Lake's ambivalence. He was instrumental in pushing for military action in Haiti. Republican sniping has not been able to obscure the fact that the U.S. did oust a dictator and preside over a democratic election. But Haiti was an isolated episode, not a sign that he, Lake, had become comfortable with exercising American power abroad. And so on the most important issue facing the administration- Bosnia Lake never did come up with a strategy, nor did he come to terms with the hard choice at hand. As Jason DeParle pointed out in the August 20, 1995, New York Times Magazine, Lake was still trapped in what might charitably be called wishful thinking just a few weeks before the Serbs overran the "safe havens" in Srebrenica and Zepa: "One thing we can hope is that whole event will have led all the parties to take a look at what going over the edge could mean," Lake said. They looked and they did.

Not until Lake's old rival Holbrooke was recalled to the State Department did the conflict end. The use of force, first by the Croatians and the Bosnians in the early summer of 1995, and then, conclusively, through the U.S. airpower that Lake had shrunk from employing, brought the Serbs to heel. Holbrooke succeeded by marrying force to diplomacy. Lake had never really tried either.

Lake's ambivalence about confronting American enemies abroad was not confined to Bosnia. It also manifested itself toward Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East and North Africa. In Algeria, the administration began to urge the government to talk to the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, in 1994. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Lake explained that "as President Clinton has said, America has a deep respect for the religion and culture of Islam. It is extremism, whether religious or secular, that we oppose." In a May 1994 speech, Lake warned against seeing a "fundamental divide pitting Western liberal democratic traditions against . . . Islam and other religious traditions." Lake singled out economic misery and the exclusion of militants from the political sphere as the causes of terrorism. The hope was to reach an accommodation with the rebels in the event they came to power. The Clinton administration's brief flirtation with the FIS not only threw Algeria into a panic, but Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well.

And, as one of the architects of the administration's China policy, Lake has been at the forefront in coddling Beijing. Lake, who has adopted the Clintonite obsession with markets-the term appeared forty-one times in a recent speech-has insisted that the U.S. refrain from exposing Chinese efforts to export nuclear materials to Third World countries. No country will loom larger in the CIA's future calculations than China.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about Lake's tenure at the NSC has been the discrepancy between his rhetoric and actions. On paper, Lake certainly has the intellectual credentials and experience to move toward some conception of the U.S. role abroad. In the past few years, he has demanded American leadership and condemned isolationism. Still, in a March 6, 1996, address at George Washington University, Lake showed that little in his worldview had changed. "President Clinton refused to engage our troops in a ground war in Bosnia because he knew that no outside power could force peace on the parties," he said. "To do so would have risked a Vietnam-like quagmire ... the combination of NATO's heavy and continuous air strikes, Bosnian and Croat gains on the ground, and our determined diplomacy convinced the Serbians to stop making war...." This was wrongheaded. No serious critics of Clinton's Bosnia policy had ever demanded that we "engage our troops in a ground war in Bosnia." From the outset, Clinton's campaign promise had been to launch air strikes. Which is exactly what he did not do for three years. When he finally did so, it turned out that an "outside power" certainly could, and did, "force peace on the parties."

In this same speech, Lake attempted to define when force should be used. He declared that there are "seven circumstances, which, taken in some combination or even alone, may call for the use of force." But, of Lake's seven categories, only one would automatically trigger military action. Which one? A direct attack against the U.S. or its allies. Yes, of course. Where is the nation that would not respond militarily if it were attacked?

When Robert Gates, the last Republican to head the CIA, entered the fray on Lake's behalf in The Wall Street Journal, he argued that Lake should be confirmed despite the deficiencies of the Clinton administration's foreign policy. Gates said Lake is a man of principle who enjoys the confidence of the president, and both these claims are true. He is a model of probity and rectitude. But Lake's record on foreign policy cannot be dismissed. During the cold war, CIA directors could come and go, but the basic mission of combating communism remained the same. No American mission so morally clear-cut and universally accepted exists now. Instead, the CIA, like the government and the nation, is groping its way toward a new definition of self-interest and morality in America's conduct abroad. At a time like this, Anthony Lake is a curious choice to head the agency responsible for monitoring and challenging America's foes. He has, after all, been reluctant to acknowledge that foes even exist.

Copyright New Republic Mar 24, 1997

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