WASHINGTON (AP) — Time was running out when Secretary of State George P. Shultz returned home in April 1988 after flying 16,000 miles in a failed mission to persuade Arabs and Israelis to negotiate their differences. Shultz said he would keep trying.
“Who’s afraid to struggle against odds?” he asked.
And so he did, in futility, until the Reagan administration ended in January 1989 without putting the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel on a course to a settlement.
But he shaped the future by legitimizing the Palestinian Arabs as a people with a defensible stake in determining their future.
Shultz, who died Saturday at age 100, was one of America’s most respected 20th-century statesmen. He served in President Richard M. Nixon’s Cabinet as secretary of labor and as secretary of treasury and then pursued accommodation with an evolving Soviet Union as President Ronald Reagan’s top diplomat for 6½ years.
A lifelong Republican, Shultz negotiated the first-ever treaty with the Soviet Union to reduce the size of their ground-based nuclear arsenals. The 1987 accord was a historic attempt to begin to reverse the nuclear arms race, a goal he never abandoned in private life.
“Now that we know so much about these weapons and their power,” Shultz said in an interview in 2008, “they’re almost weapons that we wouldn’t use, so I think we would be better off without them.”
A year earlier, in 1986, a U.S.-Soviet summit in Iceland had collapsed in spite of his hopes that the superpowers could ban much of their nuclear arsenals.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sought to limit Reagan’s cherished Strategic Defense program, known as Star Wars, to research. The president would not yield, and Reagan and Shultz returned to the United States disappointed but determined to pursue an accord.
Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, reflecting in his memoirs on the “highly analytic, calm and unselfish Shultz,” paid him an exceptional compliment in his diary: “If I could choose one American to whom I would entrust the nation’s fate in a crisis, it would be George Shultz.”
Throughout his career, Shultz was admired for loyalty, pragmatism and levelheadedness. He was called “the Sphinx” for his ability to be affable and seemingly open while giving nothing away.
Shultz enjoyed an instant, easy rapport with Reagan. But a rare public disagreement came in 1985 when the president ordered thousands of government employees with access to highly classified information to take a “lie detector” test as a way to plug leaks of information.
At the time Shultz told reporters, “The minute in this government that I am not trusted is the day that I leave.” The administration soon backed off the demand.
A more serious disagreement was the secret arms sales to Iran in 1985 in hopes of securing the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Hezbollah terrorists.
Although Shultz objected, Reagan went ahead with the deal and millions of dollars from Iran went to right-wing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. The ensuing Iran-Contra scandal swamped the administration.
“The arms transfer could not be justified,” Shultz later wrote. “I could not support this program in public, and I would not acquiesce with its continuation.”