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Ken Adelman
Political advisor

Ken Adelman

A Reagan-era Ambassador and Arms Control Director, Ken Adelman is co-founder and vice-president of Movers and Shakespeares, which offers executive training and leadership development.

Al Haig: The leader I want to remember

Alexander Haig, Jr. came through heroically as a leader just when the nation most needed him. Yet he couldn't muster such leadership when he most needed to -- for his own reputation and, as we've seen since his death on Saturday, for his historic legacy.

It was as President Nixon's chief of staff that the ex-military careerist showed unexpected political acumen and a deft touch. Nothing could have prepared him for those strangest of times: the Middle East blowing up; Watergate mushrooming; attorneys general quitting or being fired; the U.S. vice president taking cash-stuffed envelopes in the White House and resigning in disgrace; and, of course, the president, never comfortable in his own skin, acting weirder.

At the epicenter of these serial crises sat Al Haig, calm, making practical decisions for an enraged, self-pitying president who could not always do his job. He saw the big picture -- a very dark, but big picture -- that the U.S. government had to keep operating, even though the president couldn't.

Haig was steady in demeanor, sensitive to his superiors and politically shrewd, surrounding himself with solid advisors. At that moment in history, he was perhaps the most powerful man in the world, but he remained modest, mostly out of public sight.

Early on Haig probably sensed that Nixon had to resign. Yet he didn't say that, or push it, as Nixon would have bucked. Instead Haig kept quiet, waiting until Nixon family members and friends came to that fateful conclusion. Then Haig orchestrated the unprecedented decision and process of resignation with finesse.

It was an impressive performance, when our nation most needed leadership. That's the Alexander Haig I remember and appreciate -- not the Alexander Haig I worked with six years later, shortly after President-elect Ronald Reagan chose him to be Secretary of State.

That job as Secretary of State was an easier summons to leadership, almost a lay-down. Haig's boss was a popular president free from any resentments or enemies, engaged and - who could have guessed? -- adept in international relations, content to let Haig run the bulk of foreign policy.

But having mastered the most complex of predicaments, Haig couldn't handle the easy assignment. With no major crises breaking in the world, he created his own crises in Washington. His memorable moments in office came when he claimed to be "the Vicar" of U.S. foreign policy (just where did that leave the U.S. president?) and then breathlessly announced he was "in control here" after Reagan was shot.

It was all baffling, but brief. In June 1982, before a National Security Council meeting began, I walked over to Haig, who was standing alone in the Cabinet Room. By then, he had offended most cabinet colleagues and White House staff. I felt sorry seeing him so isolated. During that chat, he offered me a ride back to the State Department after the meeting.

That NSC meeting on strategic arms control, like all at that time, was contentious and it ended sourly. Just as Haig rose at the end and looked at me as if to say, "Let's get outta here, fast," the president mumbled, "Uh, Al, could you come in the office a minute?"

Haig asked that I wait in the hallway for him, and he walked into the Oval Office. Ten minutes later, Haig strutted out of the White House complex. The two of us got into his limo and talked about some now-forgotten issue. Back at State, we rode up his private elevator and I thanked him, outside his suite, for the ride. He then invited me into his office to talk for a few more minutes, which was most unusual but kind.

As I left, I heard him ask his secretary, Muriel, to get Pat, his wife on the phone fast. He had something he had to tell her.

I first heard the big news -- that Reagan had fired him during those ten minutes -- when my shuttle landed back in New York, to return to my U.N. duties, a few hours later. I was shocked, for Haig showed or hinted nothing. All this was tragic for Al Haig personally.

Yet now we know that Alexander Haig, Jr. served his country earlier, preventing a national tragedy from becoming so much worse. Few could have matched his leadership then, which we should remember, and honor, now.

By Ken Adelman

 |  February 22, 2010; 5:38 AM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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How are these stooges for big business any different than their counterparts on the politburo for Russian big government at the expense of the people?

Posted by: citizen625 | February 23, 2010 12:15 PM
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"Nothing could have prepared him for those strangest of times: the Middle East blowing up; Watergate mushrooming; attorneys general quitting or being fired; the U.S. vice president taking cash-stuffed envelopes in the White House and resigning in disgrace"

because as Chief of Staff, he was totally out of the loop.


Haig was an American Nazi.

Posted by: forestbloggod | February 23, 2010 3:10 AM
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General Haig served the country well. He was an upfront kind of guy. He leveled with the American people which is a real virtue. We need more politicians and military men like him to follow in his example. When he said something, he meant what he said, and you could trust he would follow through.

Posted by: joe100821 | February 23, 2010 2:51 AM
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America is now a place that rewards failure: not only do corporate and Wall Street failures get paid billions of dollars in bonuses for failing, people like Adelman and Bill Kristol get national forums for their blather after they have been proven convincingly, completely, and irrefutably to be failures in judgement and analysis, i.e. "Iraq will be a cakewalk". Is this what "leadership" is about? If we so value public failures and heap rewards on them, it's the beginning of the end for America.

Posted by: alloleo | February 23, 2010 2:13 AM
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Kurthunt shows himself to be a complete idiot from his post below.....

Posted by: Robster1 | February 23, 2010 12:20 AM
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Why do we honor those this way only when they are no longer here? Wouldn't it be a lot more sincere if they were still alive?

Thomas Huynh

Posted by: sonshi | February 22, 2010 10:59 PM
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Al Haig, Bob Dole, Dick Cheney!!!

That's like winning the Trifecta! Awesome. It's springtime in America.

Let's hope they all die. And let us hope that Cheney dies a very slow and painful death. For the sake of Justice.

(I actually sort of liked Bob Dole - he was not such a bad guy. And he had a good sense of humor. God speed, Dole. May you rest in peace).

But You, Cheney!!! Die! Suffer! Go to H3ll!!!!!!

Posted by: kurthunt | February 22, 2010 10:18 PM
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No one seems to get the succession to the Presidency right.

The current line is as follows:

First in line to succeed to the Presidency is the Vice-President(currently Joe Biden).

2. The Speaker of the House of Representaives (currently Nancy Pelosi).

3. President pro tempore of the Senate (currently Senator Robert Byrd)

4. The Secretary of State (currently Hilary Clinton).

5. The Secretary of the Treasury (currently Timothy Geithner)

6. The Secretary of Defense (currently Robert Gates)

When Ronald Reagan was shot, the line of succession would have been

1. VP George H.W. Bush
2. Speaker "Tip" O'Neil
3. President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Senator Strom Thurmond.
4. Secretary of State Alexander Haig
5. Secretary of Treasury Donald Regan
6. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger

Haig was actually the fourth in line to the Presidency.

The line of succession continues based on the establishment date of the Departments of the United States Government.

Posted by: WorkatHomeGuy | February 22, 2010 9:57 PM
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Gen. Haig was really more an operative than a leader during the Watergate period.

As Adelman suggests, he did for a time exercise some of the powers of the Presidency. This may have given him the idea that he was able to do the job better himself than the men elected to it, a serious misunderstanding of the situation by a man wholly unsuited to the world of electoral politics and one that may have contributed to Haig's failure at the State Department under Reagan.

It remains true, as Adelman says, that Haig rendered the country a vital service during a critical period. It is very likely that the Watergate episode would have ended much more badly had another man occupied Haig's place in the Nixon White House. That Haig was neither saint nor sage should be obvious, but few of America's most notable public servants have ever been either.

Posted by: jbritt3 | February 22, 2010 9:37 PM
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In tandem with SecCom Baldridge, SecState Haig set in motion the establishment of the U. S. Foreign Commercial Service. By carving out 110 Embassy Post from State to Commerce, American Business was offered at the start experience in-country international entrepreneurs who could jump start American exports. Haig vision will be sadly missed now when U. S. exports and jobs are so desperately needed by the current Administration.

Posted by: JZ11 | February 22, 2010 9:08 PM
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Two things:

1. Why can't people acknowledge that our leadership is human and as such does some great things and some not so great things? Was Haig perfect? Of course not. But neither was JFK, or FDR or Clinton or even Washington or Lincoln. So why can't he be given credit for the things he seems to have gotten right (handling Nixon through Watergate - to the poster who attributed the Watergate sins to Haig: there is no evidence he was ever involved in the Watergate crimes) while pointing out that he his performance as Sec State was flawed?

2. As to his "I'm in control here". Yes, he got the Constitutional succession wrong. BUT. He didn't claim any Constitutional authority, merely that he was the point person until Bush's plane got back to DC.

Because people forget - for the first few hours after Reagan was shot, there was concern that it was the beginning event in a 9/11-type attack. Knowing that, he overstated things, probably trying too hard to convey the appearance that the US Govt still had active leadership to respond to any subsequent events.

Aside from that comment, it appears that Haig performed properly and admirably that day, and I think he should be given credit for that.

Posted by: MainMan1 | February 22, 2010 7:58 PM
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Whenever there was a faint mention of him, I was reminded of the novel "Seven Days in May"...I still am.

Posted by: lltroy | February 22, 2010 7:48 PM
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..."I liked him, and that's coming from a "Proud/Liberal/Democrat! I remember he appeared when Reagon was shot and he told America not to worry he was in charge of course he really wasn't but that wasn't the point the point was he made America feel safe, he assured America things would be o.k.

..."You know what...America believed him, and so did I...

..."Rest in Peace General Haig and thank you sir, for making all American's feel safe when they needed to hear it they heard it, from one of our best...

I thank the Great Washington Post for paying such a high tribute to a true American who served his country with honor.

Sincerely, Tommy Birchfield, Voter/Vet USAF, Graduate Student, Master's Program,
East Tennessee State University/Class/2010.

Posted by: ztcb41 | February 22, 2010 7:45 PM
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too funny- anything involving any of the reagan people is too funny... and sad... our country will never recover from those fools...

Posted by: peterjlydon | February 22, 2010 7:42 PM
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Whenever there was a faint mention of him, I was reminded of the novel "Seven Days in May"...I still am.

Posted by: lltroy | February 22, 2010 7:42 PM
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"Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State, in that order."

Why are all the Haig apologists quoting THIS sentence in an attempt to defend "I'm in control here at the White House"?

As Secretary of State, at a time of potential crisis as all agree, in front of the whole world on live TV, Haig GOT THE ORDER OF SUCCESSION WRONG. It's President, Vice President, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE.

That's what upset people, not "I'm in control here at the White House."

Oh, and the plumbers, the enemies list, the Salvadoran death squads, etc.

Posted by: StevenDolley | February 22, 2010 6:47 PM
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When Nixon was talking suicide, Alexander Haig did truly serve America. He had the Secretary of Defense scramble the nuclear launch codes that are contained in the "football" the President carries. The fear was that a suicidal Nixon was preparing to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR, resulting in an immediate retaliatory strike against America's cities. Millions, probably billions, would have died. Criticize Al Haig for what you do know from the papers and news report of the time, it's what you don't know, and what is in the secret archives that counts. Al Haig gets no criticism from me, only praise.

Posted by: magnifco1000 | February 22, 2010 6:42 PM
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Why is there a consistent desire to rewrite history when a famous person dies? Out of all the criminals in Reagan's nation-destroying cabal, Haig was one of the most disturbed.

Posted by: revbookburn | February 22, 2010 6:19 PM
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One of the other people commenting here noted that there are some people who just aren't cut out to be politicians -- Haig was really one of them. It was probably true that Haig was in command -- at the White House -- as he said, at that moment. He was probably telling the truth, which as everyone knows is a stupid thing to do with a bunch of reporters standing in front of you asking frenzied questions.

That's why until very recently Robert Gibbs has relied on wisecracks and jokes to explain the actions of his boss.

Posted by: Extempraneous | February 22, 2010 6:19 PM
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I'm not saying he didn't make a mistake -- actually he made several mistakes, both in terms of strict fact and then a misstep in his phrasing. But that does not a megalomaniac make when you're at a press conference in a terrible situation. It's astonishing to me how uncharitable the media were to Al Haig and the legacy of their viciousness is plain when you read the comments of people who can only remember that soundbite, ripped from its context.

If you listen to the background of the press conference, the people in the room were in a *frenzy* for information about whether Reagan was dead, how dead he was, and whether he would ever be undead. I think a lot of them wished he was dead, but that's not what got reported -- instead it was Alexander Haig, one of the most steady people in the modern history of our government, who got excoriated, not the chatterers in the press corps.

That's how politics works, but I thought the press was supposed to be "above" that? (At least at that time, heh.)

Posted by: Extempraneous | February 22, 2010 6:15 PM
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fr extemp:

>...The "I'm in control here at the White House" was a perfect soundbite misstep that was taken grossly out of context by a media establishment looking to hit the Reagan Administration with anything they could, including Alexander Haig...

Nope, not at all true.

Haig should have listened in government class when they listed the correct sequence should the President become incapacitated. It's President, VP, Speaker of the House and THEN Secretary of State.

Posted by: Alex511 | February 22, 2010 6:08 PM
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Let's remember what Haig's actual quote was in context, at a very rambunctious and stressful press conference:

"Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State, in that order. And should the President decide that he wants to transfer the helm to the Vice President, he will do so. As of now I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him, if something came up I would check with him of course."

Watching the press conference and understanding the stress Haig was under at that moment, dealing with an unexpected event of extraordinary magnitude, I'm struck by just how careful he managed to be in prefacing his "infamous" words with the Constitutional order of succession and then following up that he was in close contact with the VP.

The middle part was siezed upon by no small number of people and repeated ad infinitum, divorced from its context, to convey the impression that Haig had somehow siezed command in his own mind.

Reagan was very media-savvy and he knew that those few words were never going to be forgiven by the Press, and indeed they never were, to their everlasting shame.

Posted by: Extempraneous | February 22, 2010 6:00 PM
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The really twisted part of Al Haig's misstatement to the cameras that day was, of course, that John Hinkley, Jr. tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan in order to "impress" actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed.

By shooting James Brady in the head, that single crackpot launched more than four decades of wrongheaded political activism against the 2nd Amendment -- in order to impress an ACTRESS.

And people think Haig's comments at that press conference were bad? Madre de dios!

Posted by: Extempraneous | February 22, 2010 5:45 PM
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The "I'm in control here at the White House" was a perfect soundbite misstep that was taken grossly out of context by a media establishment looking to hit the Reagan Administration with anything they could, including Alexander Haig. In the context he said it, with the previous and following sentences, it made perfect sense and was intended to be a statement of reassurance at a very stressful moment.

Everyone in the media sized upon it as some kind of indication that Haig was a power-mad wannabe usurper, and they successfully damaged forever his legacy.

I was around to watch the coverage of that event and the mendacity and paranoia that the media showed in reporting that sound bite is one of the most shameful things they've ever done.

Other than that, I agree with the author: Alexander Haig was one of the best people in the United States at a tremendously difficult time. In a moment of stress with the world watching a press conference he said a few words that were seized upon and taken completely out of context by the Usual Suspects.

It's ironic because a lot of them would have probably have rather had Haig as the President than Reagan in any case, if that was what Haig had insinuated, which to anyone listening to the news conference in its entirety just wasn't so.

Posted by: Extempraneous | February 22, 2010 5:34 PM
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What else can we expect from a Reagan crony about another Reagan crony?

Posted by: TalkingHead1 | February 22, 2010 5:00 PM
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Al Haig is a sad reminder that not all good (or even great) military leaders make good politicians.


Posted by: dastubbs | February 22, 2010 4:53 PM
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Are you kidding me? The man was a megalomaniac, and no friend to democracy. He had a face like a deaths-head skull. Pretty shameful that the WaPo would give Adelman a platform to shovel this kind of fascist-loving manure when we should all be shoveling the dirt extra deep of Haig's grave.

More bad news journalism from a paper that used to be great but is now far from it.

Posted by: AdHack | February 22, 2010 4:49 PM
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I know litle to nothing about his military career. What I know from the public record concerning his political career is mostly negative. He is from another era.

Posted by: yamamah | February 22, 2010 4:28 PM
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Haig, without the makeover by Adelman, stands as one of the key people who sabotaged the b*****d Nixon out of office. Like it or lump it, that's the way it was.
I would like very much to see the actual history of the United States being taught to kids someday, such that creeps like Adelman would simply be laughed at instead of given columns in the Post.

Posted by: hrayovac | February 22, 2010 4:11 PM
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Cannot believe Post printed this offensive piece. You are still trolling for neo-cons. I knew Haig and worked with him. He was nothing like this puffed up admiration. He lacked both morals and courage.

Posted by: Fordson61 | February 22, 2010 3:54 PM
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Al being a leader? Jesus, come on Ken, what have you been smoking?

This is really laughable...

Posted by: poutsos57 | February 22, 2010 3:40 PM
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I heartily second the comment below. These traits were observed by his West Point peers.

"As SACEUR, I found Haig arrogant, imperious, self-aggrandizing and self-promoting. Amazing that a man who went to a political assignment as a colonel and came out as a four star general could still have such a needy ego.

Posted by: hill_marty"

Posted by: dave19 | February 22, 2010 3:20 PM
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General Haig served his country with honor his entire life and we, as a nation, are better for it.Rest in Peace General Haig.

Posted by: kconniekilgore | February 22, 2010 1:33 PM
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Rest in Peace General, and thank you for your service.

Posted by: jhr1 | February 22, 2010 1:24 PM
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De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

Posted by: mail7 | February 22, 2010 1:16 PM
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So Alexander Haig died, met St. Peter, and told Peter, "I am in control here!"

Posted by: MarkT3 | February 22, 2010 1:04 PM
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I don't know much about the 'politician' Alexander Haig Jr. except what I have read in the papers or seen on TV.

I served with Alexander Haig Jr. in Viet-Nam. He was my battalion commander and I was with him daily. We saw a lot of combat in the 1/26th Inf. of the First Inf. Division. Alexander Haig Jr. was an unrelenting, uncompromising, and tough commander. Yet, he never asked of his men what he would not do himself. This man led from the front. His decisions saved the lives of countless men in the field, mine included.

Say what you want of Alexander Haig Jr. the man I knew was a brilliant tactical officer who cared about his men. The rest of his career shall be judged by others.

A man is who he is when it counts! And Alexander Haig Jr. stood tall when it counted. He was a great soldier, a patriot, and a proud American. His courage is desperately needed today. I will miss him.

Al H. Friedricks
U.S. Army (Ret)

Posted by: desmondohanlon | February 22, 2010 12:49 PM
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Adelman has got a lot of nerve still showing his face, or is it called Chutpah?

Posted by: dontblamemeivoted4gore | February 22, 2010 12:43 PM
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As SACEUR, I found Haig arrogant, imperious, self-aggrandizing and self-promoting. Amazing that a man who went to a political assignment as a colonel and came out as a four star general could still have such a needy ego.

Posted by: hill_marty | February 22, 2010 12:32 PM
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I ran across General Haig standing just outside the old terminal at Washington National Airport in the late 80's or early 90's. His neck was on swivel mode, obviously he was looking for someone. I said "Hello General Haig."

"Good Afternnoon." he responded.

"General Haig" I said, "You seem like your floundering a bit there. I must admit I am too".

"Yes" he said.

I asked "Well, do you know who is control around here?"

We both had a hearty laugh and went on our separate ways.

May you RIP General Haig.

Posted by: LetsBeFree | February 22, 2010 12:24 PM
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It constantly amazes me how hateful liberals are toward those who disagree with them. Is this the new part-partisanship of which I hear every day? Why is every Republican a villian?

The man served his country his whole life; probably longer than you have. The man made significant contributions to the country at the same time. Those contributions had critics, right or wrong. He has passed. Let him rest.

Posted by: FromWoodbridge | February 22, 2010 12:07 PM
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This a big joke right? Much like when someone said that the Dimwit Palin wrote a book!!!

Posted by: TWilliams1 | February 22, 2010 10:17 AM
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It is amazing to me that "cakewalk" Adelman has the gall to even speak in public, let alone write in defense of this militarist, jingoist, corporatist thug at his passing.


Posted by: julianfernandez | February 22, 2010 10:12 AM
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Haig was a neo-fascist enemy of the US Constitution. A sock puppet operated by foreign interests.
Real patriots celebrate the passing of this traitor.

Posted by: brattykathyi1 | February 22, 2010 9:57 AM
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When did Ken Adlemen become an expert on leadership? Does anyone find it a little strange that a career beauracrat/DC think tank guru is criticing the leadership of a man who was a ground force commander in 2 bloody wars and served in positions where he actually had to MAKE decisions and not simply advise people.

Like the famous quote says "The credit belongs to the man in the Arena..." And whether you liked Haig or not, he, unlike Adelmen, was actually "in the arena."

Posted by: sos1 | February 22, 2010 8:57 AM
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Adelman glosses over Nixon "getting weirder" during Watergate. There were times when Nixon was drunk and taking mood altering drugs during Watergate. We had a non-functioning president during the cold war. Haig's greatest service to this country was keeping an even keel at that time. There clearly his service in Viet Nam, but it was that service behind the scenes that Haig should be remembered. Everyone focuses on "I'm in charge" moment, which was clearly over reaching and showed the worst of Haig's ego, but keeping a drunk (and perhaps deranged) president from doing worse should offset that day.

Posted by: merrylees | February 22, 2010 7:52 AM
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What an apologist!
All he can muster is that Haig sort of kind of helped Nixon resign by not suggesting that he resign! That's leadership?
There's a reason Haig has a very negative image. He was NOT a good leader.

Posted by: Beckola | February 22, 2010 7:35 AM
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It must be nice drawing a paycheck offering "leadership development" and "executive training". Adelman is uniquely qualified to offer advice without having to make and live with tough decisions. Look how quickly he pointed fingers at SECDEF Rumsfeld and President Bush when things went bad in Iraq. At least they stood by their convictions. Ken "Iraq will be a cakewalk" Adelman had the luxury of helping send other people off to war and then walking away from the problem he helped create. Just like some of the CEOs he is probably now advising. Take the money and run should be his motto.

Posted by: privacy1 | February 22, 2010 7:28 AM
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"Cakewalk" Adelman has NO credibility. The Wash Post must be run by dummies to have this piece by Adelman. Do you think Americans have NO memory???

Posted by: usnr02 | February 22, 2010 7:13 AM
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Do you honor his service to the memory of four American nuns, raped and murdered in El Salvador? Or is his defense of Central American death squads fogotten?



Posted by: JohninReno | February 22, 2010 6:55 AM
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Here's the leader that journalist Robert Parry remembers:


When I interviewed Haig in the early 1990s, I asked him if he was troubled by the pattern of deceit that had become the norm among international players in the 1980s.
"Oh, no, no, no, no," he boomed, shaking his head. "On that kind of thing? No. Come on. Jesus! God! You know, you'd better get out and read Machiavelli or somebody else because I think you're living in a dream world! People do what their national interest tells them to do and if it means lying to a friendly nation, they're going to lie through their teeth."
But sometimes the game-playing did have unintended consequences...

Posted by: bdunn1 | February 22, 2010 6:29 AM
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