THE Iran-contra hearings have given Congress and the public an unprecedented view of the difficulties of the position of a secretary of state within the structure of the United States government. First, the secretary of state has multiple responsibilities. Along with the president, he is the spokesman for this nation's foreign policy; at a minimum, he must spend a quarter of his time testifying before congressional committees. Another quarter may be spent in international meetings. With the advent of the jet age, he is expected personally to attend major meetings, whether at the United Nations General Assembly, NATO, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to name only a few. When the secretary is not directly involved in resolving diplomatic problems, additional time is spent meeting with the press, on TV talk shows, and giving interviews.
Second, the secretary of state is the nation's chief negotiator. Instructions to ambassadors abroad go out over his name. He is personally involved in such significant and time-consuming negotiations as those with the Soviet Union or relating to peace in the Middle East.
Third, the secretary administers a sizable bureaucracy. This means time absorbed in budgets, personnel decisions, and security. Although the secretary has many to assist him in these tasks, he is ultimately responsible and must be informed of the details of management. That bureaucracy, moreover, contains the Foreign Service, the corps of professional diplomats traditionally regarded with suspicion by politically minded White House operatives.
Fourth, in a nation that has no prime minister, the secretary of state is often called upon to relieve the president of ceremonial duties - in welcoming official visitors, receiving diplomats, and representing the US at significant events abroad.
The secretary is also expected to be the primary foreign policy adviser to the president. But inescapable circumstances inevitably make it difficult for a secretary to play this role. Distance is a factor; the national-security adviser is in the White House, a few doors down from the Oval Office. The secretary is six blocks away. A secretary of state, moreover, has no domestic constituency to provide additional power in the policymaking machinery. He must find allies in other members of the Cabinet and, at times, in Congress.
In Washington policy wars, distance, the lack of a constituency, and the preoccupation with other duties can be fateful handicaps. The members of the National Security Council staff, for example, have no managerial, ceremonial, or public-relations obligations. Even though fewer in number than the staff of the State Department, they can spend their full time on policy issues. If the secretary is not there in person or is not strongly supported by the president, his views may not get a fair hearing.
If they are faithful to their responsibilities, secretaries of state must describe the realities of circumstances abroad that may run counter to the assumptions of political leaders at home. They may feel compelled to point out that a foreign enterprise strongly pushed by a president may not work and may have unfortunate consequences. Such views are frustrating to a White House staff dedicated to the action-oriented culture of domestic politics and full of a heady sense of power. The secretary is then charged with being insufficiently supportive of the president. White House staff members try other channels, bypassing the secretary of state.
Every administration has had those who feel the process of diplomacy is too slow and who seek to undermine this support. Faced with such a situation, a secretary can speak out publicly or resign. Neither is an attractive option. In either case he is vulnerable to charges of undermining a president or a political party; he may also fear that a successor would, from his standpoint, move policy in the wrong direction.
However the secretary of state may be regarded domestically, he is an important figure in our relations with other nations. No other person in the government, short of the president, is recognized by most countries as the valid spokesman on foreign affairs. If he appears to lack support at home and others seek to usurp his role, the US is less effective.
Preoccupied with manifold responsibilities, vulnerable to political attack, and acutely conscious of the problems facing the nation, the secretary of state can be a lonely man. That loneliness can be truly relieved only through the firm support of his chief, the president of the US. When that support exists, both the secretary and the nation benefit.
David D. Newsom, currently at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, is a former undersecretary of state for political affairs.