Ken Adelman: Reagan at Reykjavik

Ken Adelman (2014) Reagan at Reykjavik:
Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War


Howard Adelman

Yesterday, late afternoon at Massey College, I went to hear Ken Adelman discuss his book on the 11-12 October 1986 Reykjavik summit. (My late brother Al was born on 12 October so it is an easy date to remember as Al turned fifty that day.) At the two-day summit in Reykjavik, President Ronald Reagan of the U.S. and Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the two most powerful men in the world, failed to conclude a disarmament deal. They both initially thought it was a great failure. But Reykjavik set the stage for the deal they finally signed, the most important arms reduction program in decades if not in history.

Ken did not just give a talk about the contents of the book, but offered a very lively multi-media presentation with photos and videos, anecdotes and an articulation of both his feelings and his thoughts. It was one of the best and most interesting talks that I have ever heard. Further, it was a crucial turning point in history and the preface to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Ken followed his wife into the Commerce Department in 1969, but eight years later during the Ford administration, he had risen to become the assistant to Donald Rumsfeld as the Secretary of Defense. Ken became the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for almost five years from 1983 to 1987 when he resigned just when the most widespread reduction of intermediate nuclear tipped missiles was concluded and 80% of intermediate ballistic missiles were sent onto the ash heap of history. Though he was central to the negotiations, he gives almost all the credit to Ronald Reagan, not for his intellect, not for any self-conscious critical reflection, but for a very clear vision and determination to end the arms race and a belief that America would win and the Soviet Union would lose, something Ken nor virtually any other expert believed could happen. For as a director of the arms control agency, the agency’s goal was simply to try to freeze the arms race, not end it.

What you have to know is that Ken is a neo-con (he calls himself a con-con), a cold war warrior who always, even at the Reykjavik summit, promoted peace through strength. When we chatted before the talk, he told me that he too majored in philosophy (and religion) at a very small college in the cornfields of Iowa, but he went on to write a PhD in Kinshasa in Zaire as a dependent husband while his wife, Carol, who worked for the U.S. Commerce Department, was in Kinshasa as a diplomat. We compared notes and talked more about Africa than his work on political theory.

Near the end of his talk, he claimed that at Reykjavik, Ronald Reagan brought anti-nuclear arms in from the fringes and made it legitimate. After the talk, I went up to Ken and told him that I had been head of the nuclear disarmament movement at the University of Toronto as a student in the sixties and that we did not consider ourselves outliers needing legitimacy from Reagan. His response was immediate: so you were part of the enemy, but it was said with a wry smile from a scholar and statesman who competed with Ron Reagan in being affable and personable.

Of course, I had to recall I had been his enemy when he believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and when he initially supported the war in Iraq, though only a few years later that “cakewalk” turned into a disaster as the Bush government dismantled the Iraqi army, decimated the civil service in Iraq and destroyed the possibility of creating a strong and unified post-Saddam Iraq. Even then, it was a surprise that this neo-con cold warrior voted for Obama in the 2008 election because of his dismay at McCain’s irrational response to the economic crisis and his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. He reverted to supporting Mitt Romney in 2012 and let me know that he thought that Donald Trump was despicable and surmised that Hillary would be a stronger President than Obama in foreign affairs. I did not have to ask him who he would vote for in this election.

He did not begin his talk with Reagan and Gorbachev, but with Roberson Davies. Though I knew about his Shakespeare expertise and his use of Shakespeare to teach politics, I had no idea he even knew who Roberson Davies was. Evidently, when buying his $150 worth of books to take to Kinshasa that he would need to write his thesis, the salesperson in the bookstore foisted on him Robertson Davie’s The Fifth Business: The Manticore – World of Wonders, the first in the Deptford Trilogy. Ken thought he was being given a present for buying so many books, but it ended up on his bill. Three months after his arrival in Kinshasa, with no other distractions from his academic life, this then non-novel reading nerd, picked up the Robertson Davies volume and could not put it down. He and his wife Carol devoured the whole Robertson Davies corpus. So he was especially delighted to give a talk at Massey College where Davies had been the first master.

Ken then went on to recall his socializing with Allan Gotlieb during the eighties when Allan was the Canadian ambassador from 1981-1989 and his wife, Sondra Gotlieb ran the most important Washington social salon from the Canadian embassy. Allan and Sondra were in the audience and Ken expressed his personal thanks to them, not for all the social occasions to which he had been invited at the Canadian embassy, but for a very intimate dinner to which he and his wife had been invited when Robertson Davies was Allan Gotlieb’s guest.

So this was the introduction to a talk that was very personal as well as being Ken’s contribution to diplomatic history. And he began with what could have been the beginning of a Robertson Davies novel. On the screen there was a picture of Hofty House, this two story relatively small mansion located on a windswept plane on the outskirts of Reykjavik and reputedly haunted. This impression was reinforced as the rain slashed against the windows, though in the picture when Reagan meets Gorbachev, there is no rain.

Ken never carried the haunted theme forward in his talk, so I was not sure why he introduced it. But he did convey the very small headquarters in which the politicians and their advisers worked with Reagan located in the upper room to the left and Gorbachev located in the upper room to the right and the small meeting room below Reagan’s rooms which had only room for a table and seven chars, one each for the two leaders at each end, one for George Schultz, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Foreign Minister. Beside each of them sat a translator. And then in the picture he showed, there was a seventh person crouching at the knees of Ronald Reagan, a much younger Ken and with a bushier moustache.

Ken explained that, whereas the previous disarmament summit in Geneva had been planned for six months, this one was a last minute affair with only ten days for preparation. When the U.S. delegation had to meet in private, they went to the American embassy to meet in the bubble or safe room, where they sat next to each other on narrow chairs in two rows with the knees of the ten of them rubbing against a counterpart in another chair. Ken also introduced the irony that the KGB and the CIA shared two bathrooms in the basement where the two groups were located on each side of the house.

So Reykjavik was a very weird place to hold a summit. There were very few hotels there, but over 3,000 journalists had been assigned to cover the summit, but all they were left to do was follow the sightseeing of Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa. The summit got off to a very propitious start as far as the Americans were concerned. Reagan was told that Gorbachev was arriving. Reagan did not bother putting on a coat, but ran outside to greet Gorbachev personally and, in the picture Ken showed, it looks like Ronald Reagan, twenty years older than Gorbachev, is helping Gorbachev up the steps.

Ken used his depiction of the talks to illustrate his general principles of diplomacy (with my rephrasing based on my memory):
1. Dream big;
2. Clearly articulate your goal;
3. Know how you are going to get there;
4. Be persistent when you are down.

I had heard Ken talk at another meeting about diplomacy and how it had changed. Reykjavik was a turning point in that as well. Ambassadors and trained diplomats used to carry the responsibilities for diplomacy. At Reykjavik, the ambassador was displaced even from his home, did not participate in the summit and seemed to illustrate the instantiation of a new era of diplomacy which no longer required an ambassador who was an expert in figuring out the politics of another country. What was needed was a media star capable of articulating and communicating that policy to the audience back home. A diplomat now was engaged in public explanation of goals, the reasons for the policy, media relations using social media, and defending the policy no matter how controversial.

The bywords of discretion, understatement, being quiet (as well as afraid of making a mistake), were no longer the hallmarks of high level diplomacy. Ambassadors did not know the policy and would be embarrassed if they made a mistake. The new diplomacy meant living with mistakes, not evading the risk of making them. So when Gorbachev and Reagan went head-to-head in 10 and ½ hours of unscripted discussion over two days without notes, this was a harbinger of the new diplomacy.

Gorbachev had arrived at the summit with a briefcase full of proposals. The U.S. delegation had presumed that the meeting was only a glad handing event to boost Gorbachev’s status in the Soviet Union. The discussions had their ups and downs, twists and turns, depressions and elations. And so much in the end fell on the issue of Reagan’s star wars vision, the ability to shoot down any enemy’s missiles. This was then simply a laboratory idea and a number of us, myself included, were convinced it would never work. We were wrong. But even at the time, the American delegation could not figure out why this was such a big issue for Gorbachev, especially since Reagan offered to share the technology.

Gorbachev had conceded ten different times. Reagan conceded nothing. Gorbachev insisted the star wars research be abandoned. Reagan refused since how could a country’s desire and will to defend itself be surrendered. At the time, the summit collapsed in failure over this issue. Why was Gorbachev so desperate to get an agreement but so unwilling to give up on this issue? The Soviet Union was broke. George Bush, then head of the CIA, and Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defence, had had a head to head battle over whether the USSR was spending 11-13% of GDP on the military (Bush) or 13-15% on the military (Rumsfeld). As it turned out, the amount was 30% of GDP as the Americans learned later. Gorbachev could not afford economic improvement while pursuing armaments. Further, he was convinced that the Americans with their ingenuity and wealth could outspend them even if the USA shared its star war technology with them.

I was one of the ones who blamed Reagan at the time for the failure of the talks, but had to swallow those words when the two sides signed an agreement a year later. But then I took solace in the fact that Ken had to swallow his misbegotten support for the Iraq War. Further, in 1986, just before the Reykjavik, both Ken Adelman and Ronald Reagan had failed to get Pakistan to halt its nuclear program. In December 1982, Reagan had warned President Ziv of Pakistan against pursuing nuclear arms. In 1984, America drew a red line in the sand that Ziv was warned not to cross. But in 1986, it was clear that Ziv had called the American bluff and had enriched uranium over the 5% limit (sound familiar from the Iran negotiations?), had engaged in technological transfers and was probably in a position to produce one or two nuclear weapons. Pakistan was a recipient of large amounts of American aid so the U.S. had considerable leverage. But Pakistan was also the staging area for arming and training the resistance forces in Afghanistan fighting the Russians.

Ken had advised Reagan to counter-bluff Ziv, but recognized that given American dependence on Pakistan for the fight in Afghanistan, the U.S. was resting its policy on quicksand. The achievements of the Reykjavik summit pushed Pakistan into the background as Ken Adelman witnessed and was party to the most extensive disarmament agreement in history.

He clearly was not perfect in his own admission. And even though he supported the Iraq War and failed to reign in Ziv, his contribution to peace and diplomacy was enormous.

Indivisibility and Divisibility within the U.S. Presidency

Corporeality IX: Indivisibility and Divisibility within the U.S. Presidency


Howard Adelman

Tomorrow, President’s Day, is on Monday, the 15th of February this year. George Washington’s birthday is on the 22nd of February. In fact, the holiday, for almost fifty years has been celebrated on the third Thursday of February to accommodate a public enamored with long weekends and retail outlets in love with scheduling great sales on such days. This year, President’s Day falls only two days after Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on the 13th of February. Anticipating such a fluctuation when the holiday was set for the third Monday in February, the day was renamed President’s Day from Washington’s birthday to celebrate both presidents. In reality, the day is now widely understood as celebrating the Office of the President and all its occupants rather than just one or two presidents.

President’s Day is now more akin to Victoria Day except that, in Canada, the day that used to be celebrated just as Queen Victoria’s birthday is now celebrated as the birthday of the current monarch as well, even though Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday falls on 21 April. The shift of one celebration to honouring the Office (U.S.) to the practice in Canada of celebrating the current monarch is telling. In Canada, the monarch is supposed to be a symbol of unity, but has become the symbol of Canada’s political fault line. The day that was once known in Quebec as Fête de la Reine became unofficially Fête de Dollard after the Quiet Revolution in the sixties and in 2003 officially became National Patriot’s Day. Our focus, however, is the United States presidency and the Canadian example will be used only as a foil.

So it is appropriate at this time to write about the nature of the office of the U.S. President and its current occupant. It is not as if all the occupants are worthy of celebration. I cite just one example, George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor in that high office. He ranks among the worst presidents in American history. Hence, the understanding is that President’s Day honours the high office much more than all its occupants. In contrast, there are no celebrations of the birthdays of any Prime Minister of Canada or the office. One of the essential features of the American presidential office, as distinct from the Canadian Prime Minister’s office, is that the person who is president is both the political leader of the U.S.A. as well as Commander-in-Chief of the American armed forces. Two positions are embodied in one person. In America, we find the dilemma of the elected king’s two opposite functions. The issue in the U.S. throughout its history has been whether those two powers are separable or inseparable in the one person, and, if separable, which part rules the other. If it is the civilian part, how is control over the military role exercised or, surprisingly since unanticipated, a coup of the military by civilians prevented?

The George W. Bush presidency can correctly be viewed as the embodiment of the doctrine both of the indivisibility of the office of the U.S. President and the infallibility of the actions performed by that office when it comes to military matters when indivisibility becomes the order of the day. The President can do no wrong. Ironically, this doctrine was enunciated at a time when George W. Bush delegated all his Commander-in-Chief responsibilities to a small coterie of officials around him. He never engaged in any substantive discussions of military policy himself. Robert Blackwill, for example, who was the coordinator for strategic planning for Iraq in the National Security Council in 2004, was never asked anything about Iraq even as he traveled with Bush daily in the 2004 elections. The exclusive focus was re-election. Further, as everyone who has written on the subject acknowledges, advisory meetings of top officials were exercises in silent hostility – whether between Richard Armitage and Doug Feith or Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. There were presentations but no substantive exchanges or discussions about policy decisions, thereby allowing Dick Cheney to determine policy by his control of the President. Condoleezza Rice tried but failed to facilitate such debates. George W. Bush was a Commander-in-Chief, but without the dignity such an office should have as he dithered and shook his legs up and down under the table in recognition that he was involved in discussions over and above his mental capacities.

Dick Cheney is usually viewed as the Rasputin influencing, exercising and, most importantly, defending that doctrine of presidential power. Not for George W. Bush, but for himself. George W. Bush is often, and, I believe, correctly seen as Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist dummy for Dick Cheney, Bush’s Edgar Bergen when it comes to foreign affairs. After all, George W. Bush consulted with only two officials before deciding o go to war in Iraq. Neither Dick Cheney nor Donald Rumsfeld were military officers, but policy advisers determined to use the military for their own political purposes. This was a case of the civilians seizing absolute control of the military for strictly political purposes.

David Graham in an article in The Atlantic (5 November 2015) reinforces this interpretation based on his interview with former President George H.W. Bush in anticipation of the latter’s forthcoming biography, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. The elder 91-year-old former President, George H.W. Bush, criticized the dominating Dick Cheney and the arrogant Ronald Rumsfeld for entrapping his son in initiating a foolish war for their own nefarious purposes. He referred to Cheney as, “Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East,” to advance their own imperial agenda.

Cheney’s belief in the untrammelled power of the Commander-in-Chief went back to his days as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence. In the 1990 lead-up to the first Gulf War, President Bush overruled Cheney’s advice that the administration should go to war without Senate approval, not because the approval was in doubt, but because Cheney was committed to the doctrine of the indivisible and absolute power in matters of war of the Commander-in-Chief. Bush père criticized his son for being a patsy in the hands of those two manipulators. Over time, but too late, Bush-son became disenchanted, first with Rumsfeld and then even with Cheney. After the Republicans were whipped badly in the 2006 elections, Bush fired Rumsfeld. He also gradually became sceptical of the advice he was receiving from his Rasputin.

The exercise of supreme and unchallenged authority, ostensibly by the President, but, in reality, by Cheney, extended into legal matters as well as military ones. The U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps (the JAGs) operates a court system dealing with civil litigation, tort claims, labour law, the application of just war principles and international law, but Cheney was primarily concerned with suborning the Judge Advocates, the licensed attorneys representing military service personnel. The dictates of civilian lawyers in the Defense Department, who are political appointees more than individuals with high standards of professionalism, were to determine what JAGs could or could not do. This was another area in which there was an effort to make the rulings of the Commander-in-Chief unaccountable to the rule of law.  But the most heinous example was the rules for interrogating captured alleged terrorists and not permitting them to have independent counsel.

Obama’s presidency can be viewed as the embodiment of the doctrine both of the divisibility of the office of the U.S. President and the fallibility of the actions performed by that office.

The American Constitution insists that the highest military authority belongs to the highest civilian authority; the President is the First Admiral, the First Chief-of-Staff and Commander of the Air Force. David Luban called this “fused dominion” characteristic not only of the American presidential system, but of warlords and military dictators, ancient hero-rulers and feudal Western kings. In the fusion, could the Commander-in-Chief suborn the civilian head of state or would the civilian head of state ensure that the military remained subordinate to civilian rule as the writers of the Constitution intended? If he did the latter, could he interpret that principle of domestic rule over the military from a supervisory role and ensuring military actions were governed by civilian-set goals? Or could and would he, in effect, engage in a military coup, not of the military over civilian office, but of civilians over military professionals by seizing absolute control over the military unaccountable to any other political institution?

In Jay Bybee’s torture memo, under the George W. Bush administration, the indivisibility of the office is cited to justify the presidential exercise of untrammeled power in the area of security matters. “The Framers understood the Clause as investing the President with the fullest range of power understood at the time of the ratification of the Constitution as belonging to the military commander.” What I call the indivisibility of the highest office, David Luvan calls the interpretation, as forged by the Bush administration, the consolidationist theory as distinct from separationist doctrine. The consolidationist view is summarized in the briefing of the Justice Department Lawyer to Congress, “The President Is Always Right,” what I call the indivisibility doctrine is upheld. In this interpretation of Article 2 of the Constitution, in the global war on terror, Congress cannot second guess the President. The President is entitled to use any form of interrogation for enemy combatants deemed appropriate without Congressional oversight.

So Abu Ghraib is not just about the rights of enemy combatants in captivity; the issue goes to the very heart of the meaning of the American Constitution. In the consolidationist view, courts that generally oversee the protection of such rights must also defer to the Presidency because courts lack the requisite competence of the Commander-in-Chief and cannot and should not tie the hands of the President, even by applying a criterion forbidding “cruel and unusual punishment.” More expansively, that doctrine invades limitations on the courts even in domestic matters, for the doctrine includes an absence of geographical limits to its application since global terrorists can be found within America itself. (Cf. Padilla v. Bush) In this interpretation of the battlefield, the military, not the judiciary, determine the status of the individual as an enemy combatant. In other words, using the indivisibility principle, qua Commander-in-Chief, the powers of the President in military matters were unlimited.

Barack Obama, a former Professor of Constitutional Law, opposed the indivisibility principle for interpreting the powers of the President. Though both powers were consolidated in a single person, the doctrine of separation of powers still applied and the responsibilities of a President as the highest civilian authority in the land entailed that civilian responsibilities, and responsibilities to the democratic polity, overrode any of his military responsibilities. Though I certainly support Obama’s interpretation, it is not as a legal scholar, but as a philosopher. However, my interest here is not even defending the divisibility and separation of powers doctrine, as much as indicating that this is an issue in contention in the United States because historically the Americans copied British developments at the time where the king was both head of government and Commander-in-Chief. It would trap Obama in a paradox from which he could not escape. (Read tomorrow’s blog.) In Canada, where the system was forged a hundred years later, the divisibility of military and civilian power became the dominant conception without any equivocation.

No matter which position one takes in the United States, given the consolidation of powers in the same office, there will always be an inherent debate on the “broad substantive war powers” conferred on the President, a virtually non-exiting debate in Canada. Why in the U.S. does Barack Obama personally decide who will be the target of drone assassinations? Is this an exercise in machismo? If it were, then Obama would be directly undercutting his belief in the divisibility of powers and the subordination of military to civilian authority in the Office of the President. From my review of the literature, I am convinced that Obama does it, not to usurp the skills and prowess of the military in selecting targets, but because of the danger of the military exceeding their areas of competence and using their resources to eliminate political leaders with serious political consequences internationally. The separation of military and civilian decisions even extends to the battlefield and the requisite just war norm that civilians are not to be targeted intentionally and only may be unintentionally killed in proportion to the importance of the military target. However, as another unintended consequence, such a premise relies on making the CIA another branch of the military.

When it is unequivocal that a Canadian Prime Minister is not the Commander-in-Chief, the rule of civilian authority over military power is unambiguous. But when the two functions reside in the same one body, even when the President wants to reinforce the principle of the divisibility of powers and the supremacy of civilian over military rule, he is trapped by his responsibilities and has to stay up late deciding whether it is appropriate to target this person or that person with a drone strike. He becomes the number one assassin on the world stage. It is almost as if an American who becomes President cannot avoid becoming an imperial President to some degree.


With the Help of Alex Zisman