- - Saturday, October 26, 2019

Conflated in the ongoing uproar over President Trump’s handing of the U.S. relationship with Ukraine is the fact that like many presidents who have come before he has utilized trusted individuals outside the normal State Department bureaucracy to accomplish his objectives. Critics of this approach seem to believe that such a “dual track” approach to diplomacy is novel to the Trump administration and bad for the country. They are wrong on both accounts.

U.S. presidents for well over a century have recognized that in many cases that career State Department bureaucrats, for a variety of valid reasons, cannot be relied upon to achieve bold new initiatives or undertake realistic solutions to a range of sensitive problems. Dealing with these, both prior presidents as well as Mr. Trump have utilized an effective strategy of going around the State Department, often in secret, with what has traditionally been called a “back channel” to foreign leaders.

President Nixon, for example, used Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, and his deputy, Gen. Al Haig, in just such an approach to negotiate the historic opening with China and resolve other problems with the Soviet Union and in the Middle East.

Indeed, both Nixon and Mr. Kissinger have written that these major accomplishments in U.S. foreign policy could never have been done in any other way, and that from the outset of that administration they needed to wrest the foreign policy process away from the State Department bureaucrats. Indeed, even after Nixon gave Mr. Kissinger the additional role of secretary of State, Mr. Kissinger largely ignored and avoided the established State Department bureaucrats in dealing with important problems.

Other presidents have used a variety of individuals for such missions, including personnel from other government agencies; former government officials; and private citizens they thought would be useful. The late Gen. “Dick” Walters did this for years and his book, “Silent Missions,” is a testament to this approach.



Several such individuals were involved in negotiations with Iran, and former President Bill Clinton performed a useful role dealing with North Korea while others outside of State helped dealing with Cuba during the Obama administration. The list goes on and on.

Presidents have all done so because they have recognized the need to avoid an entrenched State bureaucracy that is inherently resistive to change, and by and large are wedded to the status quo and in almost all cases wish to avoid rocking the boat in any way. There are other reasons as well. 

Nixon believed that the State Department “leaked like crazy” and could simply not be trusted at all, and stated this in his historic meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, adding that the only ones to be trusted here were Kissinger and Haig. In other cases, the individuals have had some special skills, expertise or personal connection to a foreign nation that the president valued. In all cases, the back channel was somebody that the president personally trusted for the task.

Liberal media and Trump-haters have now focused on his use of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in dealing with Ukraine, and the endemic corruption in that country. Certainly, Mr. Giuliani is trusted by Mr. Trump. In his years as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, he has spent more time chasing corruption than anybody in the State Department ever has — and quite possibly the entire State Department combined.

For his part, Mr. Giuliani has been on TV lately detailing his efforts to inform an unresponsive State Department and other about his findings about corruption in Ukraine, which apparently fell on deaf ears.

As one might expect from a career prosecutor, Mr. Giuliani has collected a large amount of evidence, which no State Department bureaucrat would ever do, and has expressed his willingness to share it with anybody who will listen. To the extent that any of this reflects badly on Hunter Biden and his father, former Vice President Joe Biden, let the chips fall where they may. Mr. Giuliani has not been shy in expressing his opinion on corruption in the Biden family — an opinion that Mr. Trump clearly shares.  

Admittedly, Mr. Trump’s use of Mr. Giuliani for this task has raised concerns among Trump critics and even some of the president’s supporters, and the indictment of two of his colleagues has not helped the situation. At the same time, Mr. Trump is by all accounts an unorthodox president and sending in Mr. Giuliani can be seen as an unorthodox approach to foreign policy. 

Ultimately, however, it is essential to recognize that what Mr. Trump has done here is not all that different from the time-honored tradition of dual-track diplomacy, and that the results of his selection of his agent for this may in fact result in what the United States actually needs here. A growing and stronger relationship with the new Ukrainian leadership is well under way.

Now new light is being shed on aspects of Ukrainian corruption that have in the past been detrimental to U.S. interests and likely the 2016 presidential election. This simply would never have happened if left in the hands of the career State Department personnel. While this is not to disparage the work done by a standing army of career State personnel, making waves and challenging established norms is not part of their job description or culture. There are times when a dual track or back channel to a foreign government is needed and this happens to be one of them.

• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under President Nixon.

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