Sunday, February 21, 2010

Alexander Haig: General, Statesman, Director

Alexander M. Haig Jr. is one who got away. I say that about someone who I tried to get to write an article for Directors & Boards and he or she has demurred for one reason or another. There will be no more opportunity for me to revisit this proposal with Gen. Haig. The former Army leader who was a key principal in the Nixon White House and Secretary of State in the early years of the Reagan administration died yesterday at the age of 85.

You won't find much in his obituaries, such as the ones in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, about his business activities in between his public service engagements and after his retirement from government. He founded a consulting firm, Worldwide Associates Inc., in 1983, serving as its chairman. His corporate directorships included America Online Inc. (where he was a founding director), Interneuron Pharmaceuticals Inc., MGM Grand Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., and United Technologies Corp., where he did a stint as president of the company — "his first job in the private sector since high school," according to AP's obit, after stepping down as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in the late 1970s and before rejoining the Reagan administration.

As a budding journalist in J-school during the Watergate affair, I was always fascinated with the whole cast of characters from that period, including Gen. Haig. I followed his career in and out of business. When he came to Philadelphia in 2004 to address a conference of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on East-West relations, I was there, listening closely to what he had to say on the state of world affairs. He took the occasion to, as he put it, "engage in a little intellectual hygiene." To wit:

"A few bad ideas need to be washed away. For example, the notion that the United States can remake the world in its own image, on its own, as a reaction to violence from abroad dates from Woodrow Wilson's time. Its an old populist con detached from reality. . . . Does anyone believe that the United States can turn Afghanistan and Iraq into thriving democracies; reconcile India and Pakistan; transform the Middle East and do it all with a 10-division army and a $500 billion deficit? Frankly, we're lousy imperialists. We have neither the civil service nor the patience. Further, we lack ambition. As [then] Secretary of State Powell told the Archbishop of Canterbury, the only territory we've ever asked for is enough ground to bury our dead."

That is exactly the kind of "intellectual hygiene" that I thought he could bring into the pages of Directors & Boards if I could have gotten him to write on the state of corporate governance.

Gen. Haig served as a trustee of the FPRI since 1990. His FPRI essays can be found here.

[Photo: Reagan Library]