During his five years in the White House Lyndon Johnson, from time to time, would call in a group of honored Democratic (and Republican) elder statesmen to seek their counsel about the major issues in foreign policy and the Vietnam War. This group came to be known as “The Wise Men,” and was the subject of a book (the first for both authors) co-written by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. Its members included Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, and George Kennan.
Kennan was the last of this group, dying in 2005 at age 101. Today, if another group of Wise Men were chosen, George P. Shultz, Secretary of Labor, and later of the Treasury, in the Nixon administration, and Reagan’s Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989, would surely be included.
Several days ago I posted concerning a Washington Times column by Benjamin Tyree in which Mr. Shultz offered his views on the current economic crisis and on Iraq. In a column in today’s Times by the paper’s chief political correspondent, Donald Lambro, the elder statesman speaks about the major foreign-policy issues today.
After mentioning the current Russian threat to place nuclear missiles near the border with Poland, Lambro writes:
Asked how Mr. Obama should respond to this and other bellicose gestures and actions following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Mr. Shultz chose his words carefully.
“I’m sure he understands it. He does not want to be perceived as weak, so he will take steps to deal with that, I assume. The question is, can you be reasonable without being perceived as weak?” Mr. Shultz said.
The former Secretary of State gives high marks to President Bush’s antiterrorist initiatives, saying that he put across
“an important idea that is still controversial but which I think has worked. That is, in an age where there are people who want to do damage to us through terrorist tactics, you want to be aggressive in trying to find out what might happen before it happens and then stop it from happening – that is, take preventive action. And that’s an uncomfortable idea for people, especially when the act of prevention takes place in some other country; even if it takes place in this country, it has its problems.”
But Mr. Shultz points out that, because of the President’s actions, “we are a harder target” for terrorists and that “we haven’t had an attack in this country since Sept. 11 when there’s been lots of attacks all over the world.”
Where the President-elect’s statements concerning a withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 16 months are concerned, Mr. Shultz points out:
“I don’t think he knows at this point what the risks are 16 months from now. One would hope that conditions would be such that we could begin withdrawing troops by that time. You don’t know whether conditions will be such in 16 months that we will be comfortable in having most of our troops withdrawn. Maybe they will be, and I hope that will be so. But I do think that if you set a [withdrawal] date, you make it harder because you give your adversary something to play against. I think, personally, that’s a mistake.”
And concerning North Korea’s recalcitrance on inspection of their nuclear sites he observes:
“The North Korean action is part of a pattern in the way they behave. They are endless bargainers. There is no such thing as a firm agreement with them. You make an agreement, they make a compromise, and then they immediately break it in some fashion.”
Words that the President-elect – and Sen. Hillary Clinton, should she move on to Foggy Bottom – should heed.