Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Foreign policy is not ordinarily conducted in controlled laboratory circumstances, but 1982 gave Ronald Reagan that opportunity to an unusual degree. A self-confessed anti-communist, he had come to the White House insisting on the requirement for a hard line, and in his first year he had capitalized on it by winning congressional support for a five-year defense plan of $1.357 trillion (in 1983 dollars)-in peacetime and in a period of economic crisis, no less. On the eve of his second year, there occurred an event-the declaration of military law in Poland-which lent itself well to validating the premise of Soviet menace and mendacity on which the President's whole anti-communist stance rested. In those conditions of evident domestic support for a world view freshly authenticated by the main enemy, Reagan had an excellent chance to prove that his analysis of the central problem of American foreign policy was sound. With one year of experience under his belt, and two years to go before elections, 1982 seemed destined to be a good year.
It was not. For Reagan the year was not a disaster of the magnitude that mid-1979 to mid-1980 spelled for Jimmy Carter, who lost his political mandate in that period. But it was a year of frustration, raggedness and uncertainty, reducing the President at one point to observing apologetically that at least the Soviet Union had committed no new aggression on his watch. There were no clear successes to point to, and the one diplomatic success claimed in 1981, the Lebanon cease-fire, disintegrated. Among the allies and in American public opinion, Reagan's efforts to ease the general nervousness felt about his hard line did not keep resistance to his policies from growing. This article will deal largely with political considerations, but economic considerations-recession and threatening depression on a world scale-increasingly shadowed Reagan's policy. On the one hand, he had reason to fear that economic anxiety here and abroad would dilute his intended anti-communist focus and, on the other, that gathering catastrophe might lead to basic alterations in the global balance of power.
Nowhere was there ease. In Poland martial law did move toward a formal end, but there was no loosening of the Soviet-sponsored regime's effective grip. An attempt to muster European support for economic sanctions failed either to punish the Soviet or Polish authorities, or to help the Polish people, producing instead a bruising confrontation with the allies. In Afghanistan, the other principal place cited by Reagan as exemplifying the march of Soviet power, the Soviet army fought on ruthlessly.
In Central America an attempt to find and firm up a reasonable democratic anti-communist center lurched toward an unforeseeable end-or was it an interminable limbo? In Africa the anti-communist line produced acceptable results neither in the Western Sahara nor in Namibia. In the Middle East the effort to build a joint Arab-Israeli strategic bulwark collapsed in the fifth major Arab-Israeli war, not so incidentally helping trigger a stunning change at the helm of the State Department. Torn between his old favoritism toward Taipei and Beijing's demand for unequivocal commitment to "normalization," Reagan moved away from a decade of strategic calculus and found himself facing simultaneously deteriorating relations with both Moscow and Beijing, who were themselves openly exploring a détente of their own. It remained at best uncertain whether in the center ring-the arms control talks with Moscow-the Reagan pressure tactics would produce either an agreement on American terms or a sure onus on the Kremlin. The year-end change of Soviet leadership added to the disturbing sense of unpredictability on the global scene.
Not the smallest source of that unpredictability lay within the President's own foreign policy councils. I refer not merely to Alexander M. Haig, Jr.'s mid-year replacement as Secretary of State by George P. Shultz but also to the indications of policy moderation that flowed after that transition, though perhaps not entirely from it. These signs, in respect to the Siberian pipeline to West Germany, the Mideast and, more tentatively, various other issues, raised the question of whether the Reagan hard line was being quietly eased. The portents appeared to leave the President uncertain whether to accept the credit arriving from some quarters for starting to do the sensible thing or to duck those unsolicited plaudits in order to muffle the cries of betrayal arising from his traditional core constituency on the Right. Substantial sections of the Center and Left, however, remained unconvinced that even the most benevolent Shultz influence could by itself bring the President around to their way of thinking. They were preparing for open political combat on a full range of Soviet-related issues in 1983.
On the eve of the new year the Polish government caught everyone unaware by imposing martial law: a response that was brutal by American standards but, as Europeans knew, mild by bloc standards and one whose Polish quality made it hard to blame directly on Moscow, as Reagan instantly did. The Europeans hesitated. They were committed, as no American administration is, to the commerce (jobs), movement of people and sense of relative tranquillity that are the continuing fruits in Europe of the détente of the 1970s. They saw, moreover, an insupportable inconsistency between Reagan's call for anti-Soviet and anti-Polish sanctions that required sacrifices mostly from the Alliance, and his continuance (and later extension) of grain sales-as well as his reinstitution of draft registration only: pale beer to countries that take conscription for granted.
Reagan, behind an ocean and an ideology, was slow to perceive this gap. Nor did he realize that his appeals for a strong united front against martial law would be measured against his reputation as a hardliner bent not only on some sort of generalized confrontation with the Soviet Union but also specifically on a challenge to the position in Eastern Europe that the Soviets felt they had confirmed at Yalta. The Europeans, moreover, never having regarded the 1975 Helsinki Accords on European security and cooperation as more than a lever for gradual amelioration in Eastern Europe, retreated from the Reagan avowal that Helsinki justified even efforts to undo the region's Soviet-sponsored regimes.
Meanwhile, the gruff European reaction to Reagan's appeals fed, on the American side, a wave of disappointment bordering on disillusionment. If the allies were not moved by the crushing of a genuine workers' movement in the heart of Europe, what would stir them? Within the Administration, Secretary of State Haig, even while trying to put into effect a policy of highest-common-denominator economic sanctions, worked to keep these different emotional and political reactions within bounds. To the extent that he succeeded, he accumulated demerits in the White House that were to weigh heavily against him in later days.
Among the allies the heaviest weight of Administration disapproval fell on West Germany for its seeming detachment from the fate of Poland. The men around Reagan had long scarcely concealed a distrust of the Social Democrats, who, they believed, favored neutralism and accommodation with the East. The strength of the German peace movement had already induced Reagan to move more quickly than he had planned to open Soviet-American negotiations on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) in November 1981. These talks were one track of NATO's two-track negotiate-and-deploy decision of December 1979: faced with a new Soviet buildup of mobile triple-warhead SS-20 missiles, the Alliance determined to start deploying American Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe at the end of 1983 if talks with the Soviets had not meanwhile ended the SS-20 threat. Reagan's "zero option" offer on INF-to deploy no new American missiles if Moscow removed all its SS-20s-stilled some of the agitation in Europe. Still, there and in the United States the suspicion grew that Reagan had designed his proposal to be rejected so that an unconstrained arms buildup might then proceed. The Administration was confounded: for steadfastly supporting the agreement under Carter, at Europe's request, to emplace new missiles to offset a Soviet deployment threatening only Europe, it was being indicted for provoking an arms race and a confrontation. Nonetheless, it grimly asserted that NATO had invested so much of its prestige that full deployment on the 1979 terms could not be evaded.
In 1982, chiefly for domestic reasons, the German government changed party hands. The new Christian Democratic leadership at once reaffirmed the deployment commitment. Such were the prospective pressures from the Left on the German and other deploying governments, however, that it was impossible not to ask whether the Euromissile deployments would actually begin on schedule in late 1983. Even before the new year began, Moscow had begun testing Western unity and resolve with suggestions of an INF compromise: no new American missiles and a rollback of the SS-20s to the number of British and French missiles aimed at Soviet targets. Whether Reagan could hold firm to the zero option was likely to be a leading drama of 1983.
All this was plain enough. What was not so plain was why Reagan chose this period in which to press the issue, secondary in substantive terms but primary in alliance-busting potential, of the pipeline. Agreements on Western loans and technology to build this multibillion-dollar project, carrying natural gas from Siberia to Western Europe, had already been completed before Reagan halted American corporate participation in the project in response to the imposition of martial law in Poland. Recession-influenced considerations of jobs and differing evaluations of the energy picture made it most unlikely that Europeans would change their minds.
The Administration only weakened its case by constantly shifting its grounds for objection. First, it was the business-as-usual blessing the deal ostensibly gave to the crackdown in Poland; then Europe's unwise dependence on Soviet energy supplies; then the technology and credit bottleneck the allies would let the Soviets escape; and, finally, the hard currency the Soviets would earn later on. This last consideration seemed to count most with Reagan strategists, since their overall approach to the Soviet Union arose from a judgment that the United States could challenge the Kremlin to an arms and technology race, and win. The Europeans found the notion provocative and bizarre. They snorted, too, to see Reagan selling U.S. grain to Moscow, in order to satisfy precisely the sort of domestic imperatives they wished to ease in the pipeline trade.
The issue exploded, or imploded, at the Versailles Summit of industrialized democracies in June. There Reagan raised the pipeline issue not so much to hurt the Soviets, who were going to peddle their gas anyway, as to force the Alliance to deal with the strategic and subsidized nature of much East-West trade. Encouraged by Haig, Reagan evidently thought he had some measure of allied agreement on the broader issue. When it turned out he did not, he decided, at a National Security Council meeting which Haig did not attend but which the new National Security Adviser, William P. Clark, did, to extend American export controls on the pipeline. Henceforth these controls, and the penalties for violating them, would apply directly to the European subsidiaries and licensees of American firms. Thus was added to an already trying trade dispute an emotional European complaint about the reach of American law. Thus, too, was triggered Haig's replacement as Secretary of State by George Shultz.
Haig had never sought acceptance or been accepted as one of them by the President and his Californians. They had never stopped regarding him as a lone operator, rather than a team player, with a personal agenda that perhaps included presidential ambitions of his own. The very record that gave him stature-as a Kissinger protégé, a White House chief of staff and NATO commander-made him suspect in some conservative quarters in and outside the White House for his independence of mind and of political base. His personal manner, not least his manner of speech, lent itself to friction with his associates-and to media caricature.
Haig's credentials as a hardliner were impeccable. Invariably, however, a secretary of state's duties allow him, indeed compel him, to take others' interests into account while he pursues American interests. Haig brought this essential perspective to bear in well publicized cases ranging from Europe (the pipeline issue) to China (the Taiwan issue). But only a secretary of state with an entirely secure purchase on his chief's confidence might have been able to carry off the intelligent accommodations he contemplated. His favoring of Israel was another matter: he was caught sticking to an outlook that the President, in the heat of the war in Lebanon, had abandoned.
There was, in addition, the reorganization of the foreign policy structure signalled by Richard V. Allen's resignation as National Security Adviser. Reagan, intent at first on practicing "cabinet government," had meant to shrivel the adviser's role and rely on his secretary of state. But the personalities and the structure did not work out as the President had hoped. Allen, as it happened, went first, in January, following disclosure of a minor conflict-of-interest indiscretion. To replace him the President brought his California confidant, former judge William P. Clark, over from the State Department where he had been broken in as Deputy Secretary.
Clark arrived at the White House with the evident mission of repairing the general sense that Reagan, who had mocked his predecessor's management of foreign policy, was neither maker nor master of his own, and of reasserting a strong White House role in foreign policy management. With the departure of Allen, Haig lost a vigorous bureaucratic rival. But with the transfer of Clark he lost a useful friend at the White House court. He lost as well the primacy, with all the exposure that entailed, that had been assured him by the previous diminution of the national security adviser's role. At this point, or so it seems in retrospect, it was only a question of time before the sky fell in.
When it did the President turned promptly to George Shultz, who had been among those considered for appointment as his secretary of state. He arrived with the cachet of a major figure, already seasoned as a cabinet officer, well connected internationally, and respected for his academic and business credentials. He had the further advantage of being someone who had not sought the job and was rescuing the President from a major embarrassment by taking it. His reputation for a prudent conservatism promised at once to protect him from the predictable attacks from the Right and to render him at least acceptable to the Center and Left. It was not that, in the common Washington view, he would act as a guerrilla capable of subverting Ronald Reagan's intended line. But he was seen as someone who could make that line apply more sensibly to the real world.
Certainly he did this well on the issue that had figured most immediately in his accession at State. By November, Shultz, a practicing free-trader, had moved the President from the pipeline confrontation to allied consultations on "stronger and more effective" East-West trade guidelines, and from there to talks on American interest rates, European farm exports and new world monetary arrangements-critical issues for which he was better prepared than any secretary of state in 30 years. He took hold quickly, too, in the Mideast, another area long familiar to him. He was slower to bite into the big and, to him, new strategic and Soviet issues on which strong positions had already been staked out by, among others, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
In Clark, Shultz deals with a strong personality protective of the President but one who does not appear to be a bureaucratic threat or a substantive match. In Weinberger, he deals with another presidential intimate and reflexive hardliner who is the most active Pentagon diplomatist in memory-he travels frequently and often offers new military arrangements or arms. Still, Shultz, a calming, confidence-building presence, has made the making of foreign policy dull again: the eruptions of the Haig tenancy faded with him and there is no active sense in Washington that a bureaucratic clash is building. A thinness of talent at the upper echelons is more worrisome.
Before Haig departed, he had put his mark on numerous other issues, not least the Falklands dispute. For the Administration, it was not a great issue but it was ideologically an acute one. The President had arrived at the White House sharing the traditional American regard for Britain and adding his personal regard for his fellow conservative, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. So when Argentina took the Falkland Islands, it looked like an easy place to take a stand for an ally and against aggression. What complicated the choice was not simply a commendable desire to minimize the costs of a war between two friendly nations. It was that Argentina was at the cutting edge of a policy toward the Third World that Reagan had borrowed from his U.N. Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick. She had distinguished between authoritarian countries like Argentina, imperfect but changeable from within and available for international anti-communist duty, and totalitarian countries, imperfect but not so changeable from within and ready to lend themselves to hostile Soviet or, in Latin America, Cuban purposes.
For weeks Haig straddled the Falklands issue, undertaking an arduous peace shuttle. But the generals in Buenos Aires would not climb down and, as the fleet closed in, Mrs. Thatcher kept narrowing the room available for compromise. With war, Reagan abandoned mediation for partisanship on the British side. After the war he started picking up the Latin American pieces: resuming cooperation with Argentina, voting with Buenos Aires on a U.N. resolution urging Britain to resubmit the Falklands to negotiation and, more broadly, traveling to Brazil and other Latin American nations late in the year to demonstrate a concern for hemispheric relations.
Central America, however, remained the Administration's Latin American preoccupation, and a place where its counterinsurgency techniques evolved through the year. Even before Haig left, the Administration had removed from its voice the edge suggesting the United States might bring its own armed might to bear-to "go to the source," to Cuba, as Haig once put it. It added a tone of accommodation, one underlined by a series of meetings Haig began with Mexican, Nicaraguan and even Cuban officials. (To Cuba the United States seems to have tendered a reversal-of-alliances offer, which Haig privately contended was "anguishing" President Fidel Castro, although the latter gave no public sign of it.) These changes relieved the President of much of the pressure heretofore emanating from a public and Congress with the image of "another Vietnam" fixed in their minds. Presidential rhetoric continued to attribute the region's troubles to external communist instigation. But the Shultz State Department started crediting El Salvador's insurgency primarily to indigenous sources; it also criticized the right-wing nature of much of the violence, to the point where conservative critics said Reagan was slipping into the policy traces of Jimmy Carter.
To its track of economic and military aid (in a three-to-one ratio) to El Salvador, officials added a political track, pushing the armed forces to hold elections. When that process validated the democratic idea through massive participation but gave unwelcome political respectability to the hard Right, the Administration leaned on the armed forces and the politicians to control still rampant official terror, to keep up the momentum of reform and to expand the political process still further. It continued to reject the idea, popular on the Latin American Left, of a negotiation allotting shares of power to the contending parties-the Zimbabwe model. Instead it supported the Venezuelan model (of the late 1950s and the 1960s) of opening up the political process and giving guarantees to all those outsiders willing to participate in it. At the end of the year, there were signs that some guerrillas, or their political supporters, were positioning themselves for a more modest and realistic approach to talks. On the official side, some centrist elements had long been in touch with the Left. It seemed at least conceivable that Reagan could yet end up with a result consistent with his vision of anti-communism, although the costs to Salvadorans would be immense and a collapse still could not be altogether ruled out. He would be held responsible for whatever the outcome was.
To Nicaragua, the Administration declared its interest in engaging the Sandinists in negotiations. Contrarily, it also expanded previous efforts to stop Nicaraguan gunrunning to Salvadoran guerrillas and undertook secret operations to harass, isolate and destabilize the Sandinist regime. For this latter purpose it cooperated with, among others, some hundreds of Honduras-based former supporters of the late former President, Anastasio Somoza. Anti-Sandinist Nicaraguans protested that a link with Somocista guerrillas could hurt negotiations, align the United States once again with a reviled class and undercut still struggling pluralistic elements within Nicaragua. Others pointed out that the anti-Sandinist effort necessarily involved close cooperation with the military in nominally civilian-ruled Honduras, with the result that the civilian power there might shrink further, incipient guerrilla operations might expand and Honduras might be drawn into a widening regional war.
To the Administration, the Sandinists, by their sponsorship (now little questioned) of guerrillas in El Salvador, had forfeited a legitimate basis for complaining about what others might do to them. Shultz, taking over from Haig, continued supporting the same tough anti-communist purpose of loosening the grip of Central America's lone Marxist-oriented regime. At the same time he injected a certain larger credibility into the Haig posture of openness to conciliation. Just before Reagan visited Honduras at year's end, joint American-Honduran maneuvers near the Nicaraguan border were called off, and anti-Sandinist Nicaraguan guerrillas in Honduras were removed from the sensitive border zone.
Even as the political alarms rang, the United States started turning again, with a seriousness not seen since the Alliance for Progress in 1961, to the hemisphere's special economic concerns. These center now not so much on growth and infrastructure as on capital and the other means of enabling Latin America and the Caribbean to cope with their immense debts and to stay abreast of popular expectations. Part of the turn reflected Shultz's interest in the economic realm and part reflected a general desire to show that guerrillas were not the Administration's only Latin American obsession.
One Administration response was the set of billion-dollar credits Washington extended to Mexico and Brazil (similarly to India) to provide them with a bridge to multibillion-dollar International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailouts. The Reagan people had come to office with a dour view of the supposedly socialistic nature and the independent multilateral character of international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. It did not warm up much to the Bank, least of all to its soft-loan affiliate, which serves the poorest nations. But it did cross over to firm support of an increase in IMF resources to help the many nations, Latin American and other, in desperate foreign-exchange straits. For Latin America proper, officials plugged hard for the Reagan Caribbean Basin Initiative, an aid, trade and investment package. Its key aspect, the lifting of U.S. tariffs on a new range of Caribbean exports, failed to clear Congress at the end of the year, the victim of heavy lobbying by American labor unions pleading that the measure exported American jobs.
Nicaragua aside, there was one other conspicuous place where the Administration supported guerrillas against a Marxist regime-Afghanistan. Throughout the year the war raged. In November, however, the new Andropov leadership in Moscow signalled a certain readiness to intensify the quest for a negotiated settlement. The question taking shape was whether the globally minded United States would agree to the kind of compromise-one permitting not President Babrak Karmal but a Soviet-anointed successor to remain in Afghanistan at least in the first phase of Soviet withdrawal-that the key American ally, regionally oriented Pakistan, appeared ready to endorse.
In Africa, meanwhile, the effort to deal with guerrilla movements backed in some way by Soviet power dominated policy. In the north, Haig substantially altered the Carter approach to the vexing problem of the Western Sahara. Previously, Washington, while aiding Morocco, had backed a regional search for a negotiated solution. Now Washington, in exchange for access to facilities suitable for the proposed Persian Gulf Rapid Deployment Force, came so openly to Morocco's side that its military-minded King Hassan felt free to allow eight months of intricate diplomacy to lapse. Even to some of his conservative friends in Washington the question became not would he win but would he survive.
A climax of sorts arrived in the attempt by the United States, working with four other Western governments, to end South Africa's control of Namibia-an attempt that events had made the symbolic heart of the Administration's whole position in black Africa. Inheriting a stalled negotiation, Reagan thought to offer South Africa "constructive engagement," a more understanding attitude toward its problems at home, in return for its cooperation in letting Namibia go. At the same time, Reagan added as an explicit condition that the Cuban troops in neighboring Angola must also go. By the fall it seemed to many that, had the United States not made the link to the Cubans so public and tight, a Namibian settlement might have been managed and in that improved atmosphere an answer might more easily have been found to the political challenge posed to the MPLA (Popular Liberation Movement of Angola) government in Angola by the South Africa-supported UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) forces in the south. Shultz, however, was quickening Soviet-American consultation on the issue. Indeed, only on this issue, probably because of the area's remoteness and small size, was the Administration exploring a great-power disengagement. It had in mind to convince Moscow that only by removing the Cubans could its two militarily faltering southern African clients, the MPLA in Angola and the SWAPO (South West African People's Organization) guerrilla movement in Namibia, muddle through.
It was in the Middle East that President Reagan made his major diplomatic mark in 1982. I refer, of course, to the Arab-Israeli dispute, not to the potentially far more disruptive threat posed to America's moderate Arab friends by the Islamic fundamentalist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. Washington could do little more than wring its hands when Iran, having repelled Iraq's invading forces, started to invade Iraq. By year's end Iran appeared to have a certain military momentum, and the moderate regimes of the Gulf were wondering anxiously what the price of their own stability, even survival, might be.
From the start, Haig's method in the Mideast had been to build a "strategic consensus" against any further post-Afghan expansion of Soviet power. He did not dismiss the Arab-Israeli dispute as a major source of instability. But he calculated it was best to consolidate the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, principally by ensuring the return of the last slice of Israeli-occupied Sinai in April 1982, and then to move on carefully to talks on Palestinian autonomy. The fire in Lebanon, Haig felt, had been adequately banked by U.S. Special Representative Philip Habib in 1981. This was not by any means a frivolous reading. With the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, the danger of major war in the area had receded. With the oil glut, one large reason for pursuing Arab favor by agitating the Palestinian issue was diminishing. Considerations of their own security were moving Gulf Arabs closer anyway toward general cooperation with the United States. Neither Arab nor Soviet patrons were likely to go out of their way to aid the Palestinians. Ronald Reagan, it appeared, felt no particular urge to seize the Middle East baton from Jimmy Carter.
It all made sense, and it all was wrong. In June the Israeli army piled into Lebanon. As one who had substituted an attack on "international terrorism" for the priority earlier accorded to human rights, Haig had long sympathized with the travails suffered by Israel and others at the hands of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He had a healthy respect for the potential strategic importance of Israeli power. These proclivities were shared by the President. In this sense, he and Haig offered at least a tacit green light-nothing more is on the record-for an Israeli border-zone operation. They had not calculated, however, on how far the Israeli army might go or on the way the American media would portray the war. Nor had the Israelis foreseen the reaction when they chose a strategy culminating in the televised siege of a city situated miles beyond the border zone announced as their first objective.
Suddenly the American focus became the damage being done to civilians by the Israeli onslaught. The offenses of others faded away. All of the frustrations and resentments that had collected in the public mind, and especially in the bureaucracy, over the collisions with Israel in the years of Prime Minister Begin's leadership seemed to explode in criticism of the siege. The Israelis, it was widely and tersely agreed, had gone too far; they had abused the confidence reposed in them by the United States and by Ronald Reagan personally. The fever helped sweep out Haig, who left muttering of a failure of nerve on the part of an Administration that had come to power insisting that its predecessors had lost their nerve. His successor had previously made no secret of his conviction that the United States had indulged Israel excessively and thereby shorted its own Middle East interests.
Shultz's first regional task was to bring American influence to bear to stop the shooting and arrange for the PLO's evacuation from Beirut-a withdrawal for which Israel, whose troops had made it possible, received scant credit. It had been a post-Vietnam landmark of sorts when, a few months earlier, American troops had joined a peacekeeping unit in the demilitarized Sinai. It was a far more substantial step for the Administration, with a jittery Congress looking on, to send Marines to a tense city in a country still filled by contending forces. Arriving to oversee the PLO's withdrawal, they left soon but then soon returned, after the Beirut massacres by Lebanese Christian militiamen, and took up extended peace-keeping duties to support Ambassador Philip Habib's effort to remove all foreign forces, Israeli, Syrian and PLO, from hapless Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Shultz drafted a plan capitalizing on the "post-Lebanon" strategic circumstances, principally the defeat and forced removal of the PLO. On September 1, Reagan reversed an adult lifetime of sentimental regard for Israel and offered new proposals for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement. Drawing on but going beyond the Camp David terms, these proposals envisaged a negotiated Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Palestinian self-rule in the territory "in association with Jordan." To start, the President asked Prime Minister Menachem Begin to freeze the West Bank settlements, which had done more than anything to convince Palestinians and others that Begin meant to annex the territory.
With that speech, the center of Middle East debate shifted from whether the United States accepts the centrality of the Palestinian question to whether the plan can be put into effect-over Begin's objections on one hand and the Palestinians' on the other-by the means to which Reagan and Shultz insist they are wed. They support persuasion rather than outright pressure, playing to Begin's political opposition by drawing King Hussein of Jordan to the peace table and thereby isolating both Begin and the Arab rejectionists and diminishing any drag by the influential American Jewish community. At Arab urging, a determined Reagan accepted as the first test of his credibility to remove Israeli forces from Lebanon-on their removal, it is agreed, hinges the withdrawal of Syrian and PLO forces. As 1983 opened, Israel and Lebanon's President Amin Gemayel had opened a back channel and were also conducting formal talks. In the new year the larger Palestinian initiative would likely succeed or fail.
Elsewhere in the Third World, the Administration extended its policy of building selected positions of strength. (What the President thought of the Third World as a whole was perhaps suggested in part by his private explanation for refusing to sign the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Third World's diplomatic pride: "We're policed and patrolled on land and there is so much regulation that I kind of thought that when you go out on the high seas you can do what you want.") This policy entailed in the first instance arms sales, elevated in a White House formulation of "national security strategy" to top priority. Pakistan, Turkey and a number of Arab states were its principal beneficiaries.
The policy also entailed a lowering of the public emphasis Carter had put on human rights performance in friendly states. Among the notorious cases, only in respect to Chile did those Administration elements bent on maintaining a principled consistency prevail-barely-over those wishing to do pretty much what the anticommunist line dictated. In London in June the President opened up a new rhetorical front with a call for a "crusade for freedom," meaning appeals and open assistance for democrats and democratic institutions in the Third World and where possible in the communist world as well.
It took a trauma to move Ronald Reagan to action in the Middle East. In East Asia there was no trauma, just a steady grinding. With Japan, always the American priority, the central concern remained a search for complementary economic policies to minimize the impact of Japan's trading practices on American jobs and, as a consequence, on American goodwill. At the same time the Administration sought to draw Japan into taking a marginally larger role in the containment of Soviet military power.
With the People's Republic of China there was a more portentous change. Reagan's election had alerted both Taipei and Beijing, leading the former to test Reagan's stated favor by asking for arms that would surely provoke Beijing and leading the latter to test Reagan's formal commitment to the Nixon-Ford-Carter course of normalization by asking that those same arms be denied. Through the year Reagan's core constituency appealed to his heart while his more pragmatic aides, led by Haig, appealed to his strategic head. What made the question so tough for Reagan was his instinctive anti-communism, an attitude making him hesitate to accommodate a communist power, here China, even when it was demonstrably in the American interest and when he could do so without jeopardizing the security of Taiwan.
In this instance, Reagan finally approved the Haig formula linking the provision and eventual restriction of arms for Taiwan to expectations of progress in peaceful ties between the two Chinese regimes. Reagan was slow and reluctant enough in taking Haig's advice, however, to give the wary Chinese evident second thoughts about the worth and durability of their American connection. The Chinese may also have felt that Moscow was no longer as irreversibly menacing as they had previously estimated. Reagan continued to shade American support for Beijing in its contest with Vietnam by deferring to the other Southeast Asian nations' interest in keeping Vietnam available as a regional counterweight to China. The strategic dialogue that the Carter team had undertaken, for its intrinsic value and to keep Beijing from focusing exclusively on Taiwan, was allowed to trail off. The Administration failed to move forward on selling China either modern technology or arms.
The Kremlin saw its own opening in these developments and in the fall the long-frozen political talks between the People's Republic and the Soviet Union were resumed. At Brezhnev's funeral, his replacement as General Secretary, Yuri Andropov, received the Chinese Foreign Minister in the highest level of contact since the 1960s. The possibility of a Soviet-Chinese reconciliation in a party or ideological context looked dim but some progress seemed to be at least conceivable on the state level in one or more of China's announced priority categories: Vietnam/Kampuchea, Afghanistan and troop deployments on the Sino-Soviet frontier. Such was the zone of uncertainty to which Reagan helped bring relations on the strategically crucial Washington-Moscow-Beijing triangle in 1982. It was the backdrop to the trip to China that Shultz was planning to take early in February 1983.
We come to the heart of the Reagan foreign policy. Early in his presidency, the President had confirmed his premise that the Soviet Union cheats and lies, is evil and immoral in its ideology, conducts a predatory foreign policy and cannot be trusted either to accept "rules of engagement" in political competition or to be a reliable partner in negotiation. This left Reagan with a policy based on rearmament, confrontation and an ideological crusade for freedom, though he was always careful to say that no inordinate risks should be run by confrontation until rearmament was well advanced. As to the common rejoinder that an American arms surge would merely elicit a countering Soviet surge, Reagan insisted, first, that the Soviets were ahead and, second, that the Soviet economy was already stretched so near its limits that it could not so respond, notwithstanding the discipline of the Soviet political system-unless the West carelessly provided the easy credits and advanced technology that would let Moscow slip the noose.
Despite this dogma, the President had shown himself flexible enough to propitiate somewhat the European peace movement by opening up talks on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) late in 1981. In so doing he implicitly put aside the contradiction between his ideologically motivated distrust of the Soviet Union and his politically inspired willingness to negotiate. He also quietly put aside his theory of "linkage," which had conditioned Moscow's suitability as an arms control partner on its general political behavior. Or perhaps Reagan did resolve those contradictions in a certain substantive sense by the nature of the negotiating positions he tabled for INF and, in May 1982, for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). These positions reflected a rich quotient of the skepticism, toward the Russians and toward the negotiating process, that Reagan had brought to the White House. They were, in their American critics' word, unnegotiable.
But I run ahead. The novel foreign policy development of 1982 was the expression of popular chemistry known as the peace movement or the nuclear freeze movement. It prompted this question: coming to office with a hard line tolerated, if not supported, even by a substantial number of the people who had voted against him, how did Reagan manage to dissipate much of that consensus and to fuel an opposition that grew into a major nuisance in 1982 and might become a political force to contend with in 1983 and beyond?
It was not so much, I think, his rearming, although many people started gagging on the scale and seeming randomness of what Reagan turned out to have in mind. It was his attitude, ambivalent bordering on negative, toward arms control and his seeming indifference to public reaction to his Administration's statements on nuclear war. The late Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev aside, Ronald Reagan had done as much as any single person to sour the climate for arms control before his election. With his expanding arms budgets and his sense of imminent peril, the popular feeling grew once he took office that he was stinting on arms control, an activity which, for all its limitations, provided an essential balancing wheel.
Reagan acknowledged this feeling by entering the INF and START talks, on both occasions delivering well-received speeches emphasizing a fidelity to the arms control process. He also agreed under pressure to live with the unratified SALT II treaty, if the Soviets also would. But these steps came off as partial, grudging and equivocal. The Administration kept suggesting, for instance, that SALT II was "dead," that adherence to it was "temporary" and that the treaty would not bind future weapons choices.
Reagan foreclosed further talks on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, a negotiation carried forward by every President since Eisenhower and one integral to American obligations under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. He undertook a warhead testing program suspected of being designed to break over the 150-kiloton limit of the threshold test ban treaty (signed but not ratified). Late in the year the "Dense Pack" basing mode, designed to protect U.S. missiles by placing them together in one closely spaced cluster, was officially recommended for the MX missile, although its seeming requirement of an eventual anti-ballistic missile defense promised to cut directly across the ARM treaty, and it was quite possibly in violation of SALT I and II provisions, too. The previous Administration's pursuit of an anti-satellite treaty yielded to what former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie called "an all-out arms race in space." Negotiations on banning chemical weapons were shelved, although here there was a special factor: well-established Soviet-bloc violations of the Geneva Protocol (on chemical weapons) in Afghanistan, and of the biological weapons convention (regarding substances such as the "yellow rain" toxin) in Indochina.
In late 1981, in a sequence which set the tone for much debate in the year that followed, Reagan had suggested that a limited nuclear war in Europe might not escalate-a conventional and even innocent observation in a certain context but one that the European press portrayed as a cynical confession that America would perch safely on the sidelines while Europe was incinerated. Reagan's fault in that instance was in failing to anticipate how people would react to hearing a President already known as a cold warrior speaking in his simple and direct manner about nuclear war.
Partly fairly, partly unfairly, he came to be seen in nuclear matters as casual and insensitive, untutored even when he was sensible, more concerned to establish credibility in Moscow than to win confidence in Europe or America. Nor were his real and perceived gaps in this area filled well by his chief aides, or by their aides. Secretary of Defense Weinberger was the adviser who had sold a befuddled Reagan his first MX decision by showing him a cartoon. Shultz and Clark were newcomers to a strategic debate whose major participants have been with the issues for 20 years.
Through 1982 the impression spread, becoming something of a political fact, that Reagan in his simplistic anti-communism had abandoned the certainties and comforts of deterrence as a nuclear strategy and gone over to the risks and rigors of "war-fighting." If true, this in itself would have been the most significant event of the year. In fact, this perception was not wholly accurate though its widespread credence was a result of the whole Reagan nuclear posture.
American strategists had long seen Moscow moving toward or, some thought, beyond rough parity. This had led them to ask whether a threat of all-out nuclear retaliation, a threat first made in conditions of undoubted American superiority, would still deter the Kremlin from making or threatening either a nuclear or conventional attack against the United States or an ally. Since the 1960s, when "flexible response" replaced "massive retaliation," the United States had accepted the notion of deterring lesser Soviet threats by lesser and therefore more credible American responses. But a weapon, or a doctrine for its use, that one person approves for being "more credible" is sure to be offensive to someone else on the grounds that it makes war "more thinkable." Discretion and consultation and provision of strong conventional forces, to raise the nuclear threshold, are the traditional ways to ease the pinch.
This dilemma only sharpened through the 1970s, as Soviet progress toward a hypothetical first-strike capability against American land-based missiles came to preoccupy American planners. The planners responded, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, with weapons and doctrines increasingly consistent with fighting some sort of nuclear war. Their intent, by and large, was not literally to contemplate fighting a nuclear war-although some strategists have always been more prepared than others to drift intellectually across that line-but to convey to a foe believed ready to take high risks that the United States would not be so blackmailed. All of this was regarded as part of the necessary new intellectual and mechanical apparatus of deterrence and all of it was subjected to continuing debate.
It was one thing, though, for such a debate to take place under a President working in his fashion to improve relations and stabilize a balance with the Soviet Union (as did Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter). It was quite another under a President working for a "margin of safety" over an adversary he pronounced irremediably rapacious and hostile to the very notion of balance. The very same MX that, when planned by Ford and Carter, seemed to the political community arguable but acceptable if a sensible basing mode could be found, encountered a storm of opposition when Reagan presented his second basing mode for it, the "Dense Pack," in the fall. The Administration put forth a $4-billion civil defense proposal in May and it was taken as evidence not simply of a loose grip but of an actual intent, or at least an intolerable readiness, to countenance nuclear war.
When, in this journal, a fresh call was made for consideration of the familiar doctrine of no first use of nuclear weapons, it was a political event on two continents.1 A national debate on nuclear deterrence itself opened up when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted a pastoral letter that questioned the morality of the existing U.S. nuclear policy.
In May The New York Times published a leak of a Pentagon five-year planning document in which the United States was said to be preparing to "prevail even under conditions of a prolonged [nuclear] war": familiar (and grim) enough in context, but it was neither reported nor read in context and instead became the stuff of an ongoing indictment of the Administration's nuclear proclivities. Weinberger only fed the fire by replying that it was part of a longstanding policy of deterrence for the United States to possess forces that could survive either an initial attack or a prolonged battle and then retaliate. By this time the Administration had talked itself into believing that its nuclear will might actually be tested by the Soviet Union. It never recovered either its balance on the nuclear issue or its claim on the public's nuclear confidence. Reluctant as it was to nourish people's anxieties about war, it was no less reluctant to publicize to the Soviets that American deterrence policy was being constrained by popular fears.
The freeze itself, an old idea, was reborn at the grass roots, came within one vote of winning endorsement in the House of Representatives in March, and was approved in eight of the nine states on whose ballots it appeared in November; it carried 52-48 in the legislature in the one state, California, where the Administration had sharply counterattacked. Within freeze ranks, there was little consciousness of, let alone consensus on, the tactical, political and strategic merits of a resolution asking the President to negotiate a verifiable freeze on the testing, production and deployment of all nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles.
The Administration, however, after making a certain effort to identify itself with the campaign's higher aims, decided to reject a freeze as injurious both to its rearmament plans and its negotiating posture. Thus President Reagan in October moved from arguments on the merits to suggestions that some freeze supporters were Soviet dupes. As the year ended, he was showing no disposition to suspend or reverse the reduce-first, freeze-later negotiating program he had put to the Kremlin. On their part, some freeze spokesmen were backing off from their earlier embrace of mutual and negotiated arms limits, suggesting instead that they would attempt to force Reagan to make unilateral concessions at the INF and START talks.
Also taking shape was a broader-based campaign, enlisting freeze advocates, defense conservatives and budget watchers of all persuasions, to question the size and shape of the Reagan defense budget. Its basic impulse was the feeling that defense, under Reagan the fastest growing budget sector (six to nine percent in real terms), would have to take its share of the cuts needed to reduce his immense deficits, those deficits being especially responsible for the continuing high interest rates that were retarding economic recovery.
The grand debate that enveloped the MX missile just before Christmas firmed up the further popular feeling that the Administration's defense buildup had been carelessly conceived. The arbitrariness and seeming inadequacy of the "Dense Pack" basing mode proposed for this missile became the leading case in point. Reagan argued that killing or delaying the MX would take an ace out of his START hand. Still, Congress denied $1 billion in production money and so conditioned spending of research and development funds that it was questionable whether the missile would survive in the new year. This was the first time any Congress had balked on a major new weapons start. In response, Reagan named a prestigious bipartisan commission to study MX deployment options and report by March.
But the entire remainder of the record $232-billion defense budget passed virtually unscathed. Notwithstanding the clamor in the Congress and the media, the polls have shown continuing support for Reagan's buildup, as long as he does not go completely overboard. By making early low-dollar commitments on systems whose high-dollar costs present themselves for automatic payment later on-for instance, the two new carrier task forces in the 1983 bill-the Administration has sought to insulate itself from congressional or public second thoughts. By and large, critics have shied away from taking up its challenge to cut defense spending by first trimming overseas political commitments. What seemed probable in the new year was more turbulence and some reduction, but only in the rate of increase of military spending.
Then the Administration encountered Yuri V. Andropov, the Party regular and former KGB chief who quickly took over as General Secretary of the Soviet Politburo when Leonid Brezhnev died in November at age 75. Americans had no particular fix on Andropov beyond the deduction that his relative youth (68), his intelligence background (with a heavy foreign-affairs quotient) and his presumed debts to the military would make him a formidable adversary. Mostly from his Left, President Reagan was urged to review his policy, to demonstrate goodwill, to offer Moscow a new option or, some said, even a new favor, in order to reverse the negative drift of Soviet-American relations and to take advantage of whatever new fluidity might be winkled out of the Kremlin succession. Secretary of State Shultz suggested quietly that Reagan go to the Brezhnev funeral. From most quarters within his Administration and from his Right, however, the President was urged to take the tack that seemed to come most naturally to him, and that he took: to stay his previous course on the basis that it was sound and that the seating of a new Kremlin combination was precisely the wrong moment to give a signal that Soviet hawks might interpret as weakness. One wonders what advice Andropov was receiving, for the two of them wound up saying, in the same tone of forced gravity, that the other should make the first move. Neither moved.
Just as Andropov took over, Polish Solidarity Movement leader Lech Walesa was released after 11 months of military law internment. But Walesa was not released to the dialogue of reconciliation he had sought with the government and the Catholic Church but sent home to his family and to a political context which the government obviously hoped to shape on its own terms. This became clearer as the regime went on to relax the "main rigors" of martial law and, on that basis, to bid the West to restore the economic ties that had existed before martial law was declared. Reagan held back, seeing little change.
No sooner had Walesa been released than Reagan lifted the sanctions he had imposed to keep Western firms from building the Soviet gas pipeline. American officials declared the lifting was neither a payoff to Warsaw nor a gesture to Moscow, insisting instead that the sanctions were simply being traded in to set the stage for tougher alliance-wide restrictions on strategic, subsidized and high-technology trade with the East.
Andropov, in any event, shot out of the starting gate. He opened with a nuanced bow to China and by the end of the year had taken the East-West diplomatic initiative from Reagan with his potentially alliance-splitting offer on European missiles, a bid to Reagan for a summit, and a general posture designed to blunt Reagan's ambitious arms-building program. As these steps unfolded, Shultz, touring Europe, undertook to signal that the United States was interested in a positive approach-with an evident eye to restive conservatives at home, he quickly corrected a journalist who had reported he was "softening" to the Kremlin. Reagan in a year-end interview offered the thought that the Soviets' economic cares might yet lead them "to rejoin the family of nations." In stating a price in political concessions (on Poland, arms control and dissidents) that Moscow would have to pay for a summit, he left a certain opening for a meeting simply if it were well prepared.
In 1982, Ronald Reagan, testing the hard line, began to meet the real world. He met the Soviet Union over Poland, Europe over the pipeline and China over Taiwan, emerging scarred from all three encounters. He met the Mideast over Lebanon and, before the crisis had passed, switched policies-and secretaries of state. He met, indirectly, assorted Third World insurgencies, defeating or conciliating none of them. At home and abroad, he met the expectations and anxieties he had fed by his early pronouncements and policies on Soviet power. These promised to mount toward a climax as crucial questions of Euromissile deployment and the INF and START talks matured in 1983.
In domestic economic policy in 1982, Congress took much of the play away from the White House and made a "mid-course correction" which was subsequently confirmed in the fall congressional elections. Apart from the MX, Congress was not of a mind to make a similar "correction" in foreign policy in 1982, but in that realm a force was building in public opinion that seemed likely to create a challenge of uncertain dimensions on the defense budget, on arms control negotiating strategy and, conceivably, on certain regional questions: in short, an incipient across-the-board confrontation with the President's confrontation strategy. In this sense, Reagan's hard line was bringing him something of the worst of both worlds, uncertain results if not outright losses abroad and a certain erosion of his political base at home-even, ironically, on his Right.
At the same time, within his Administration, massed informally but in some depth behind the person of George Shultz, another force appeared to be building to challenge the raw hard line. The question was whether and how these more pragmatic elements might temper the President's instinctive confrontational thrust. The answer would be unfolding during a period of evident new vigor in the Soviet leadership, continuing political volatility around the world and deepening global economic crisis. 1983, in brief, promised to be Ronald Reagan's cruelest year.
1 Bundy et al., "Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance," Foreign Affairs, Spring 1982.