Courtesy Reuters
From The Anthology: Essays for the Presidency
Explore the Anthology

After the Election: Foreign Policy Under Reagan II

Download Article

The second Reagan Administration has a rare opportunity to reshape American foreign policy. The opportunity obviously springs from President Reagan's overwhelming election victory, which, if he remains in office for four more years, will make him the first full two-term president since Eisenhower. This victory has further strengthened his already impressive capacity for political leadership, reinforcing his authority to deal with the factions of his own party, with the feuding wings of the bureaucracy, and with foreign countries. The question is whether he will seize that authority and will know how to use it. Which Reagan, and which group of Reagan advisers, will dominate the second term? Will it be the stubbornly hard-line or the flexible President, the "ideologues" or the "pragmatists" among his counselors?

That distinction is, of course, somewhat oversimplified; the divisions within, and around, the President are not quite so clear-cut. There are apocalyptic and rational ideologues; there are very tough and semi-tough pragmatists. Still, the familiar labels do describe a genuine conflict, and in the first term, the evolution of that conflict was quite evident: from ideology to pragmatism.

The Administration started out by confronting the world with a hard-line, aggressive and Manichean set of policies, or pronouncements, that in nearly every instance gave way to compromise and at least outward accommodation. This was true of attitudes toward the Soviet Union, arms control, Central America, the European allies, and support of the International Monetary Fund, among others. The retreat and reversal on the Soviet-European gas pipeline issue was typical of this trend. These accommodations happened only after bitter bureaucratic infighting, and in response to various outside pressures: public opinion, politics, allied complaints, the risk of diplomatic debacles.

The need to compromise was symbolized by the resort to more or less bipartisan commissions: the Scowcroft panel on the MX missile, the Kissinger group on Central America. These commissions did extremely useful work and produced sound, generally centrist recommendations, which by no reasonable standard could be described as weak. What remains to be seen is whether, in the second term, these and similar policies will prevail, demonstrating in effect a learning experience by the Administration, or whether the right-wing "true believers" will succeed in dismissing them as mere temporary, tactical adjustments and will try to reassert the ideological super-hard line. A great deal depends on the answer, including the possibility of reaching at least the rudiments of a new national consensus on foreign and defense policy.

II

In fairness, it should be said that, up to a point, the hard line was a useful corrective for weak and confused policies of the past and was welcomed in many quarters as a sign of a new American assertiveness. Administration critics almost automatically preface "ideology" with "right-wing." But there is liberal or left-wing ideology too, and its reading of Soviet intentions and of the causes of Third World instability often has been just as simplistic as right-wing interpretations, if not more so.

Besides, the Reagan Administration, often reckless in rhetoric but cautious in action, did have its successes. One of them was the championing of American military power. The arms buildup may have been excessive, and ill-advised in some particulars; very little was done to reform the armed services. But the buildup was plainly necessary and, despite much bickering, it was essentially supported by Congress and the public. It constitutes the most important single "foreign policy" action by Reagan so far.

Another clear achievement, of course, was the deployment of the Euromissiles for NATO, in the teeth of all-out Soviet opposition. In dealing with China, despite some early ideological rumbles and despite the baggage accumulated during decades of a deep Republican commitment to Taiwan, the Reagan Administration acted prudently and professionally. The same may be said, at the risk of considerable disagreement, about the Reagan policy toward South Africa. In other instances, policy was muddled through lack of skill and understanding, as in the Middle East.

On balance, the Reagan Administration often proved itself quite capable of realistic and largely nonideological policies, but they did not fit into any unified concept. Thus "more pragmatism" is not a sufficient foreign policy prescription for Reagan II. A pragmatism that merely and artificially splits the difference between sharply opposing views, or cobbles together a compromise for political and public relations effect, is hardly what we need. What is required is pragmatism within a framework of principle; firm assertion of American goals combined with a recognition that there are different ways of attaining them, and that some may be unattainable in the near future; a realization that, especially in foreign affairs, passion without skill can be worse than skill without passion. Reagan II, one would hope, will recognize that toughness, while indispensable, can take many forms. On the whole, the Administration has been deficient in seeing that strength has political and diplomatic components, that charging head-on at an objective is not necessarily the best way to reach it, and that guile and the ability to maneuver are every bit as important as muscle.

III

In perspective, the Reagan Administration's difficulties in dealing with the Soviet Union are familiar, almost traditional, even though pushed to extremes. From the outset, the Administration had difficulty coping with what can only be called the yes-but formula, which has been advanced for the last three decades by just about every specialist in the field: Yes, we must be strong, but at the same time flexible. Yes, we must understand that the Russians are relentless foes, but at the same time we must seek ways of coexisting. And so forth. As a general proposition, this formula is so obvious that it is no longer worth debating; the question is how it is to be applied specifically. Yet almost every new Administration comes into office paying lip service to the yes-but principle, while actually believing that a fresh start, a new approach-either softer or harder-will permit escape from the painful and laborious double track.

The Reagan Administration was particularly determined to reject the yes-but formula, which requires the ability to hold two opposite ideas at the same time (the mark of a first-rate intelligence, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald). This runs against the American tendency to see the world as good or evil, a mind-set not invented by Reagan, and to believe in solutions; the yes-but formula implies that U.S.-Soviet strains are not a problem to which there is a solution, but a more or less permanent condition that can only be alleviated, not cured.

In fact, each Administration sooner or later has been disappointed in its hope that these constraints can be escaped, the only exception being the Nixon Administration which knew better from the start. The fact is that the Reagan Administration is being pushed toward something that, by any other name, is still détente. Indeed, détente is constantly being reinvented, redefined or relabelled (as in Richard Nixon's afterthought, "hardheaded détente"). As long as it can be protected from the utopian left, which sees it as institutionalized brotherhood, and from the triumphalist right, which sees it as institutionalized surrender, and defined as no more or less than controlled conflict, it remains the inescapable intellectual framework for American policy.

It has been eloquently argued that arms control has been made to bear too much of the burden of U.S.-Soviet relations, and that there can be no hope for significant progress on arms control unless a degree of trust can be restored or created between the superpowers.1 The notion brings to mind the observation by Salvador de Madariaga, writing about the 1930s in his memoirs, that "nations don't distrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they distrust each other. And therefore to want disarmament before a minimum of common agreement on fundamentals is as absurd as to want people to go undressed in winter." It is hard to quarrel with this insight, and yet it is equally hard to see how the United States and the Soviet Union can retrieve even a few clothes of confidence unless there is at least a possibility of moving, however slowly, toward an accord on nuclear arms.

In short, the argument is circular and irresistibly leads back to the imperative of arms control. Its achievements in the past have been modest at best. Progress has been glacial, and exaggerated expectations have been aroused by the process. But there is simply no convincing alternative to it.

IV

The Reagan Administration has often acted as if any arms control proposal that might be acceptable to the Soviets must be automatically flawed, when in fact the Soviet Union, like the United States, will naturally accept only proposals it considers to be in its own self-interest. This negative attitude, plus the open contempt for arms control expressed by some members of the Reagan circle, plus the unrealistic proposals for cuts offered at the outset of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), has obscured a central fact: the major source of the problem lies in the Soviets' own aggressive nuclear buildup and their excessive view of what they require for their own security. It is therefore entirely possible that even a "reformed" Reagan Administration with a more tolerant approach to arms control may not get anywhere with the Soviets. There are certain concessions beyond which no administration can or should go in order to win an agreement. At the same time, President Reagan seems to have disavowed the possibility that America can permanently restore any significant nuclear superiority over the Russians. What is at issue is an acceptable but more realistic definition of parity.

It has become fashionable to say that arms control is virtually dead. This view is held not merely because of the acrimonious breakdown of both the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) and START negotiations, but, more importantly, because it is argued that technology keeps outpacing the negotiators. While advancing technology immensely complicates arms control efforts, it is not beyond the reach of negotiated agreements.

Politically, of course, one of the vast problems about arms control and nuclear strategy is their complexity and the inability of the public-or of most politicians-to grasp the issues in any detail. Much of the arms control debate seems like a scholastic exercise about how many warheads can dance on the head of a missile. This frightful air of unreality has much to do with the desire both on the left and on the right, in a curious mirror image, to escape these dilemmas and to find simple and understandable solutions.

On the left, the desire to escape takes the form of a utopian belief in good will or in unilateral actions. (The widely proposed "mutual and verifiable" freeze would not assure balance and would take extensive negotiations.) On the right, it takes the form of a search for "superiority," in the belief that we can outspend the Soviets and outdo them more or less indefinitely in technology. The Administration's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") is an elaboration of this view.

The Star Wars program has a certain appealing plausibility: defense is better than offense, safety behind a shield in the sky is better than the "balance of terror." Professional analysts of course do not commit such oversimplifications, or at least not obviously. Lieutenant General James A. Abrahamson, head of the Strategic Defense Initiative research program, admits that no system the United States deploys will ever be entirely foolproof. But he argues that a less than total but highly efficient defense, which might mean anywhere from 50-percent to 99-percent effectiveness, depending on the scale of the system deployed, would make it impossible for the Soviets to plan a first strike with any high degree of confidence. That circumstance will enhance deterrence. Furthermore, even a partially effective defense would be bound to save lives in the unlikely event of an attack.

For the moment, the Administration has committed itself only to a research and development program which the Department of Defense says will require about $26 billion over the next five years. Even the more optimistic scenarios see continued need for new offensive weapons, which would only gradually be reduced. And even the most sophisticated and cautious advocates of space-based defense seem to harbor the hankering for a short-cut to safety. They too seek somehow to transfer the task of peacekeeping from the precarious calculus of threat and counterthreat, from the area of human will, to a more or less automatic regime of laser beams and mirrors in orbit.

Technological feasibility aside, the opponents of Star Wars seem to have the better case. The prospect of one side more or less safe while the other side is open to attack is untenable in the nuclear age. Moreover, in the absence of a new bargain with the Soviets, such a situation is bound to be relatively short-lived. We have seen in the past that sooner or later the Soviets can catch up with American technology, the most notable example being multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). All of this would mean great instability during a development period that might run for 20 years and, eventually, instability at a much higher and more complicated level of weaponry.

But this does not mean that development of a defensive system should be banned independently of what is done about nuclear weapons in general. The Soviets seem genuinely afraid of a technological race with the United States in space defense. This fear should be used as a major bargaining chip for an overall arms control agreement.

After an initial test of its low-altitude anti-satellite system (ASAT), which is not part of Star Wars but which the Soviets want to include in any talks about space weapons, the United States should offer a temporary suspension of further tests. This should be followed by negotiations that would tie any arrangements for space weapons to the rest of arms control. If it is too late for a total ban on space-based weapons, a possible outcome could be to permit relatively small defense systems for both sides, tied to an arms control agreement (reductions) in offensive weapons.

V

Despite the breakdown of arms control talks, the elements of an agreement for offensive weapons exist. They are summed up in the phrase, "off-setting asymmetries"-in other words, the recognition that the Soviets will not make any significant cuts in their principal arsenal of ground-based missiles unless the United States makes certain concessions in an area where it is particularly strong, namely bombers, cruise missiles and, increasingly, submarine-launched ballistic missiles. This principle is recognized in various schemes, including the so-called framework approach advanced by the State Department in August 1983 but never adopted by the Administration and in the so-called double build-down scheme. This last was put forward in the summer of 1983 by a somewhat shakily bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives which in effect forced it on the Administration. Advanced at the START talks without full conviction or complete details, the double build-down was quickly rejected by the Soviets as a mere repackaging of old, unacceptable American proposals.

The concept underlying these schemes, no doubt subject to a great deal of tinkering with the numbers, should become the basis for the Administration's arms control negotiating position. Despite its great complexity and uncertain beginnings, it remains a promising approach.

All this, of course, assumes that the Russians will allow themselves to return to the bargaining table, despite their earlier vow that they would not do so unless the United States halts deployment of Euromissiles. There is strong evidence that the Russians regret having backed themselves into that particular corner and want to come out of it. (It is interesting to recall that in 1979 the Soviets said they would not even negotiate on INF if NATO adopted the "two-track" approach, but they did in fact come to the table by 1981.) The conditions for improved relations reiterated in October 1984 by Konstantin Chernenko, in his interview with The Washington Post, did not include any reference to INF, and seem to offer enough room for maneuver to resume talks without undue advance concessions by the United States.

The verification problem, of course, presents an extremely difficult obstacle. But given determined research, it is hard to believe that "national technical means" could not be steadily improved. The Russians have made some forthcoming noises about on-site inspection, but it is doubtful that this could provide a significant overall solution. At any rate, those who believe that verification problems vitiate arms control fail to say how the situation would improve without arms control; both sides would still be dependent on the fullest possible information about the armaments of the other side but without the (admittedly incomplete) help on verification that arms control agreements do and can provide.

Movement, if any, is likely to be excruciatingly slow. No big breakthroughs should be expected. At all events, what is needed is a merger or at least a link of INF and START negotiations plus space-defense negotiations. The talks need not be fully integrated right away; they could begin separately and be linked gradually. The drawbacks of such a procedure are all too familiar: complexity and, through INF, the problem of how to bring the allies into the picture without either compromising their sovereignty and independence or else allowing them a role in the START area where they do not belong.2 Despite such difficulties, it is impossible to see how anything can be accomplished without ultimately treating the issues of nuclear arms and arms control in their entirety. There is simply not enough room for bargaining and trade-offs if things are to be fought out separately in different arenas.

The foregoing would represent a fairly drastic change in the Administration's position on arms control-at least in its earlier phase. But it would be necessary if the President really hopes to make progress in the area during his second term, and there is much evidence that he does. His sincerity would not be the issue. The question is one of intellectual capacity and will. To achieve anything he will have to become personally involved in the process, understanding it far better than he has so far, or else put policy and execution into the hands of a really trusted, high-level associate with the power to enforce his views.

The President will have to crack down hard on the guerrilla war between various parts of the Administration, an action that would go very much against his grain. Some bureaucratic infighting and genuine competition between ideas cannot and should not be prevented. But thanks to certain single-minded and obsessive positions on the civilian side of the Pentagon and elsewhere, throughout the first Reagan term, "negotiability" with the Russians was not the issue, but rather negotiability within the Administration.3 This situation can only be ended by a firm and decisive President and very likely by a change in some of the principal cast of characters.

VI

While arms control is thus at the center of U.S.-Soviet dealings, it must not be allowed to distract us from the world of politics and psychology surrounding the enclaves of missiles and warheads. In that larger context, Reagan II would do well to take certain precepts to heart. One is that we have only very limited means of influencing events inside the Soviet Union. As has been amply observed, fierce rhetoric certainly will not do it. (During the past year, and especially during the last few weeks of the election campaign, the Administration's harsh language gave way to a much softer style, downright reminiscent of Beethoven's introduction to Schiller's Ode to Joy-"Not these tones, my friends, but let us raise more agreeable ones. . . .")

Criticism, of course, must not cease, but the United States must also be very cautious in linking condemnation to practical policy, or in suggesting, as has been done by members of the Administration, that peace requires drastic changes in the Soviet regime. A lesson from pre-Reagan days, but still applicable, involves one of the most destructive actions of U.S. foreign policy, which was championed by the usually very wise late Senator Henry M. Jackson: the attempt to force liberalization of Jewish emigration from the U.S.S.R. by denying Russia most-favored-nation treatment. Focusing on Jewish emigration as distinct from any other, possibly worse abuses in the Soviet system was not only arbitrary, it was clearly counterproductive.

The Reagan Administration also needs to get better at matching means and ends, as is suggested, for instance, by its reaction to the imposition of martial law in Poland. The means were at hand for a much faster and more forceful reaction, notably suspension of the then still running INF talks and calling in the Polish debt to the international banks. But if for whatever reason it was decided not to react in that way, the mere denunciations and attempts at economic sanctions were futile. In fact, it can be argued that imposition of martial law was the minimal reaction that could have been expected from the Soviets and that no Communist state could ever permit an organization like Solidarity to subsist.

But aligning means with ends does not imply ceding anything to the Soviets that need not be ceded-and certainly not without exacting a price. True, the Soviet Union is a superpower with global interests that cannot be totally denied. Those who urge a last-ditch stand against Soviet influence in every corner of the globe, a sort of Churchillian resistance sometimes suggested by apocalyptic right-wingers, overestimate both our will and our resources. America must differentiate, without of course publicly drawing a map, between areas and situations of the first or second or fifth importance. Pressure on the Soviets and their surrogates should be applied everywhere, constantly, but in varying degrees. Above all, pressure should not cease without a quid pro quo, very likely in some other area.

Certain basics are beyond compromise. But many policies can and should be stopped or moderated in exchange for something else. American aid to resistance fighters in Afghanistan, for example, should continue. The embarrassment and material and human losses suffered by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan are of course beneficial to the West. But eventually there may come a point when the Soviets might be willing to curb certain actions elsewhere in the world in exchange for Western accommodation over Afghanistan. In such situations, there is always the risk that we will be outmaneuvered by the Soviets. But, despite such dangers, the willingness to deal at the right moment is essential.

This very much applies to an especially neuralgic area, Eastern Europe, currently in a state of considerable political restlessness. Any blunt, open political intervention there would be extremely, perhaps intolerably, provocative to the Soviets. But there should always be unpublicized, indirect probes, to be eased or stepped up in reaction to restrained or aggressive Soviet behavior elsewhere.

VII

Certain other areas require specific consideration because they will continue to test the Administration in special if quite disparate ways. They are the North Atlantic Alliance, the Middle East and Central America.

Obviously, NATO is by far the most important to America's position in the world and to its permanent contest with the Soviets. The Administration started out on the wrong foot with the allies. Somewhat paranoid in the best of times, West European leaders and intellectuals were panicked by Reagan's rhetoric and image, by some of the rather casual if actually routine references to nuclear war, and especially by the attempt to veto the Soviet pipeline, which seemed to impose economic sacrifices on the West Europeans when the United States was lifting its grain embargo. Since those days of anger and suspicion, the atmosphere between the United States and the allies has improved considerably.

Today, NATO is widely proclaimed to be in crisis. The litany is familiar. Militarily, NATO strategy is seen in disarray: inadequate conventional forces to resist a possible Soviet attack, and a less than credible nuclear deterrent. Politically, Britain, Holland and West Germany harbor strong, more or less neutralistpacifist forces which want to opt out of the East-West conflict-and, some would say, out of history. These forces are in the minority, but majority governments (which may not be in the majority forever) cannot afford to ignore them. West European countries tend to press for American accommodation with the Soviet Union, sometimes, it seems, at any price, refuse to support or understand American responsibilities in the Third World, and still take for granted the American defense of their territory.

Either in sorrow or in anger, various remedies or retaliations are being advocated and pressed on the Administration. These include what Richard Burt, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, calls "global unilateralism" (i.e., reducing forces in Europe so as to enhance U.S. flexibility to act in other regions) and "Atlantic reconstruction" (threatening withdrawal from NATO to provoke the allies into doing more for their own defense). The leading reconstructionist, Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), has called for American troop reductions in Europe unless the allies meet a detailed and sophisticated list of requirements to improve NATO's military footing. But the threat of troop withdrawal in the near future is likely to be counterproductive. The NATO commander, General Bernard W. Rogers, evangelizes tirelessly for larger European conventional forces to be equipped with dazzling new high-tech weapons. But the price tag is estimated to add a one-percent increase in defense spending to the three-percent pledge the allies have already made but few have kept.

Various military thinkers are advancing new strategies, including mobility and counterattack, to avoid what The Economist has called a Maginot Line mentality without a Maginot Line. But such schemes make the Europeans highly nervous. Henry A. Kissinger has advanced an imaginative plan for restructuring the Alliance, with an American secretary general and a European commander, to emphasize the need for greater responsibility by the Europeans for their own defense.4 The plan was welcomed as highly thought-provoking, which presumably was its purpose, but few leaders in NATO countries are likely to do anything about it any time soon.

The Administration attitude toward much of this agitation about NATO was summed up by Burt, who conceded the need for improvements while adding: "There must also be limits to our departures" (his own version of "Surtout, pas trop de zèle").5 That may not be a bad prescription for American policy toward the Alliance in the second term. A top priority must be to undercut and contain the potentially disastrous left-wing neutralist movements. This is best done through a stable, realistic policy toward the Soviets, including arms control. The Administration should continue to press for greater European defense contributions in various forms, even though this contribution is considerably more significant than popularly understood in the United States.6 The Administration should encourage any proposals for greater military cooperation among European countries, including that ever-elusive goal, standardization of equipment.

Reagan II should also continue to press for greater cooperation to prevent the transfer of military technology to the Soviet Union, for greater solidarity in major East-West crises, and for more of a role by European countries in "out-of-area" contingencies. As always, these efforts will be frustrating and often futile. We will have to accept the fact that the European view of the world, and of the Soviet Union, is different from ours. We will continue to be lectured on proper global conduct by nations which achieved their present peaceable outlook not through wisdom or virtue, but through exhaustion, after hundreds of years of waging their own wars. But we will have to continue, even at great cost, to help hold the indispensable Alliance together. With much patience, some diplomatic skill, the quieter kind of public relations-and the almost always dependable help from the Soviet Union in the form of political overkill-the task is not beyond us.

A major problem between the United States and Western Europe lies in the economic area. There are major joint concerns about growth in an increasingly interdependent industrialized world, including policies toward the developing countries. The Europeans keep complaining about high American interest rates resulting from the deficits. While these complaints are justified, they are also excessive and tend to overshadow the Europeans' own responsibility for outmoded and ineffective trade and industrial policies. Fortunately there is a growing realization in Western Europe that central economic control and welfare statism are no longer working very well. It is not yet clear, however, what is to take their place.

As far as the developing countries are concerned, the debt crisis has been at least temporarily alleviated by the International Monetary Fund, backed by a somewhat reluctant United States and other Western industrialized states. Longer-range solutions remain elusive. There is a healthy realization among many Third World countries that prospects are very dim for achieving a "new international economic order" and the pieties of the Brandt Commission, all pointing to massive wealth transfers from the industrialized developing countries. The Reagan Administration's Third World prescription of capitalism, entrepreneurship and market incentives is theoretically sound, as has been acknowledged, indirectly, even by China. But in many developing societies, these prescriptions standing alone will not mean much or will be politically destructive. They will have to be part of a mixed economic system. Without going into details here, it is obvious that the Reagan Administration has a major opportunity in the economic area, including the international exchange system. It would also be useful if Reagan II could quietly abandon such dubious missionary efforts as trying to impose certain views about population control and abortion on other societies.

VIII

In the Middle East, the Administration has swung from overactive and ill-conceived involvement (former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig's whirlwind attempt to rally the area for an anti-Soviet "strategic consensus") to extreme caution bordering on inactivity. The attitude in the second term should be somewhere in between.

The Administration can base itself on one solid conceptual piece of work, the Reagan peace initiative of September 1982, essentially a distillation of many earlier comprehensive peace plans. But the Administration never followed through with further diplomatic action. Instead it got lost in maneuvers to bring about a settlement in Lebanon, having failed to keep the Israelis from invading, if not actually having condoned the move. Today there are some new factors in the area which offer some modest opportunities.

Israel has a new coalition government, however shaky, whose prime minister and Labor Party members hold somewhat more moderate views on West Bank policy and other issues than the Likud governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Virtually all factions now want the Israeli army out of Lebanon, provided some kind of halfway reassuring security arrangements for South Lebanon can be achieved. Syria, enjoying the new prominence which it snatched from the jaws of defeat thanks to Soviet resupply and inept American diplomacy, is in no hurry to let the Israelis go. But it is finding its role as peacekeeper in Lebanon somewhat sticky. The ever-cautious King Hussein of Jordan has taken the very bold step-for him-of resuming diplomatic relations with Egypt while continuing his public refusal to have anything to do with the peace process. It is conceivable that Iraq may eventually follow Hussein in his move toward Cairo.

The United States should encourage what has already, if prematurely, been called the Egyptian-Jordanian axis. At the same time it must deal with Syria, treating it less as a Soviet dependency than as a regional mini-power with local interests and fears of its own. A tacit arrangement between Syria and Israel to stabilize the situation in Lebanon seems quite possible. That is a long way from a point at which Syria might stop vetoing any significant peace move, but under the circumstances in the Middle East one must be grateful for small mercies.

Some analysts argue that, ever since the Lebanese invasion, the Palestinians are no longer the key to the Middle East. The suggestion is that the Palestinian problem can be ignored with impunity.7 It is obvious that the Palestine Liberation Organization has been shattered, with one part merely a Syrian puppet organization and another part, under Yassir Arafat, a cause in search of a home. It is also true that among Arab states both the sympathy (always conditional) for, and the fear of, the PLO has been greatly overshadowed by a new concern with Islamic fundamentalism. Nevertheless, the Palestinian issue cannot be put aside permanently. The Administration should pressure the Israeli government to improve conditions on the West Bank and to place a freeze on new settlements. Prime Minister Shimon Peres may be receptive to this.

In U.N. Security Council votes and in other ways, the Administration should also attempt to restore at least some image of evenhandedness toward Israel and the Arab states. The Reagan peace initiative should be pursued behind the scenes, avoiding big public efforts that are too likely to end in disappointment. Meanwhile the Administration should look for every opportunity to take small bilateral steps to improve the situation and ease the atmosphere. In a postmortem on Lebanon, Richard W. Murphy, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, put it well: "We must work on the margins to protect our interests." He continued on this sobering note: "Lebanon reminded us that we cannot remake society, that we can work for peace but we cannot impose it. It also reminded us that the commitments we undertake must be ones that we as a government and as a people can sustain over time. We did not do well in that regard. Hence the need for both pragmatism and fortitude."8

IX

Nothing is more futile or arid than the debate between those who argue that the chief cause of Third World insurgencies is economic and social injustice, and those who argue that it is interference by the Soviets or their surrogates. Obviously both forces are at work, reinforcing each other, and both must be coped with. The Reagan Administration has balanced the two approaches-the stress on force and the stress on development-more successfully than it is generally given credit for.

The Reagan team undoubtedly started with an excessively apocalyptic view of the situation. But it was essentially right in believing that a successful communist revolution in El Salvador, or neighboring countries, no matter how seriously driven by the thirst for social justice, would be an American defeat. It can be argued reasonably that such revolutions are not preventable at acceptable costs, but it cannot be maintained that, in the Central American context, they are not against American interests.

The Reagan Administration often gave the impression that it was unconcerned about human rights in the area, and that it regarded dealing with this problem as a sort of moralistic luxury that could not be indulged in the midst of a civil war. U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's now celebrated analysis distinguishing between irreversible totalitarian regimes and reversible or improvable authoritarian ones is impeccable in theory. In practice it does not answer the question, crucial in many parts of the Third World, about just when an authoritarian regime, no matter how strong its anti-communist credentials, becomes so corrupt and unpopular that it loses all legitimacy and, in fact, opens the door to totalitarianism. This almost always involves excruciatingly difficult decisions. Under Carter these decisions were made too naïvely, and human rights policy was too simplistic and patronizing. But such phenomena as the death squads in El Salvador had to be coped with for the most practical of reasons.

For some time now the Reagan Administration seems to have understood this and has in fact used a great deal of influence to curb the squads' worst abuses. Without such progress, the election of President José Napoleón Duarte would have been impossible. This election was something of a turning point-and incidentally one that would not have occurred had the Administration followed the counsel of those congressmen who, since 1981, have sought to condition continued military aid to the Salvadoran government on the commencement of indiscriminate negotiations between the government and the guerrillas, which would have led to "power-sharing." The election had significant impact on foreign countries. In 1981, France and Mexico had issued a joint statement calling the Salvadoran rebels "a representative political force," which implicitly equated their legitimacy with that of the government; such a statement would hardly be issued today. Last July, on the occasion of Duarte's visit, the Bonn government resumed aid to El Salvador. An extremely useful move would be the repeal of the Helms Amendment, which bans U.S. aid to land reform in El Salvador.

It is painfully obvious that Duarte's position remains highly fragile. The slight improvement in the performance of the Salvadoran army may not last. The far right may yet succeed in sabotaging Duarte's regime, especially if he pursues his dialogue with the guerrilla leaders. Moreover it is far from clear what can come of this dialogue since, from the beginning, the guerrilla leadership has not been interested in the success of a moderate, reformist regime like Duarte's, but in revolution. There are signs that the guerrillas are flagging militarily, and that they are more than ever split into hostile factions. It is premature to hope that they will put down their arms, trusting in the government's security guarantees, and take part in elections. But that is in effect what happened in Venezuela in the late 1960s, as well as what is beginning to happen in Colombia today, and the prospect of a similar outcome in El Salvador is at least somewhat more plausible than it seemed a year ago.

The situation in Nicaragua is more complicated and less hopeful. In considering that situation one should, at the outset, discard a great deal of cant about nonintervention. President Anastasio Somoza was overthrown, at least in part, thanks to American intervention. The Sandinista regime is clearly supported from the outside with arms as well as thousands of Cuban, Soviet, East German and other East Bloc advisers who constitute a significant influence in a country of 2.9 million. The claim that the Sandinistas were forced into kicking out their democratic political partners and lining up with Cuba because of American hostility is plainly wrong. By January 1981, the Carter Administration had allotted to the Sandinista government $117 million in aid, the largest amount from any single country. In its first two years, the new government in Managua received five times more U.S. aid than Somoza received in his final two years. But it is now evident that the Sandinistas planned to build an enormous army (by Central American standards) long before the United States turned hostile.

Still, with all this conceded, it is not clear what the United States hopes to or can accomplish in Nicaragua. The choices for Washington are painfully limited. Much can be said in defense of aid to the counterrevolutionaries, or "contras." They are not simply mercenaries or holdovers from the Somoza National Guard, but a genuine anti-communist movement, and it is not absurd to call them freedom fighters. Yet there is no serious prospect that by themselves they could overthrow the Sandinista regime, much as that would be in the American national interest. But they have proved important as an instrument to make the regime more malleable; there is little evidence to support the opposite view, namely that they solidified the regime. By cutting off aid to the contras, Congress irresponsibly deprived the United States of an important bargaining counter.

Contadora can be useful, depending on how it is handled. The provisions of the original proposal are potentially farreaching. As applied to Nicaragua they could, in effect, amount to interference in the country's internal affairs, in order to change and democratize the regime; and could, if pushed to their maximum, provide for the removal of Cuban and other foreign forces, prevent foreign bases, and eliminate arms assistance to other revolutionary forces elsewhere in the area.

But the problems are several. First, some of the language in the treaty drafts seen so far is slippery. Second, it is far from clear how effectively the provisions could be enforced. Third, barring special unilateral arrangements, the Contadora provisions could mean a cutoff of American military help to the Duarte regime and other democratic forces in Central America. A deal has been suggested whereby the Sandinistas promise to stop aiding the guerrillas in El Salvador in return for cessation of American support for the contras. In view of the congressional cutoff of funding for the contras, that may be academic; but at any rate it does not seem like a very advantageous deal for the United States. In general, the United States should continue working with Contadora, but press for foolproof enforcement and maximum interpretation of its provisions (including the rejection of the November Nicaraguan elections as legitimate). This may mean a lengthy delay, but America should not let itself be pressured into accepting a premature and incomplete agreement. Standing on principle and playing for time may not be the worst policy here. Obviously, the appearance in Nicaragua of sophisticated offensive weaponry could change the equation.

X

Ultimately, the most important foreign policy goal for Reagan II lies in domestic politics: to achieve at least some measure of consensus on foreign and defense issues, especially regarding the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the more or less bipartisan approach to foreign policy that prevailed from World War II till Korea-some would say till Vietnam-was neither typical nor natural. In a functioning democracy the major issues of how a country deals with other countries, how it copes with questions of war and peace, cannot for long be excluded from the political process. For these matters are close to a nation's sense of self, its perception of its values and its meaning. In most elections, including the last one, it is simply unrealistic to ask both sides to throw away a major weapon, namely the argument that the opposing side is wrongheaded about the world-naïve or villainous, weak or reckless. And this is not a matter of cynicism, or at least not primarily. The more sincere the disputants, the more implacable. Yet there are special moments-this may be one-when the normal partisan quarrel over foreign affairs can be muted if not suspended.

It will be very difficult, putting it mildly, to persuade the fervent ideologues in the Republican Party of this. They are riding high, and they see the election as a clear mandate for the hard-line Reagan and for their more extreme goals. Nor will the right wing necessarily hesitate to attack the President if it considers him too weak.9 While victorious, President Reagan will also increasingly be a lame duck. Nevertheless, he remains a hero to a majority of Americans, and thus a huge asset to the party; the right-wingers will have to be careful not to go against him too blatantly. Besides, he benefits from what might be called the Nixon-China syndrome: his anti-communist credentials are so strong that the country at large would have a hard time accepting the notion that he had gone soft.

The experience of the first term has shown that extreme hard-line positions not only fail to work with the Russians, but fail to work in domestic politics as well. An analysis of preelection polls and the election returns themselves makes clear that voters liked Reagan's patriotism, his emphasis on American strength and even rearmament. Especially blue-collar workers liked his macho image. But at the same time, voters wanted far more serious effort in arms control and peaceful diplomacy. The fact that President Reagan moved in that direction in recent months neutralized the peace issue, which was one of Walter Mondale's big potential assets, and helped increase the Reagan landslide.

The race for 1988 has already begun. If the President wants to play to history, leaving a legacy of better relations with the Soviets, as well as gain a serious chance of another Republican victory in 1988, everything indicates that he must follow more or less centrist policies. The best hope for the Democrats would be a Republican candidate and a set of policies to revive the "warmonger" fear of the earlier Reagan days. Moreover, despite his huge victory, Reagan will have to deal with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans made only modest gains. And even if North Carolina's Senator Jesse Helms were to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President Reagan would not have clear sailing for his policies in the Senate (in fact, he might occasionally need Democrats to protect him from Helms' more outrageous positions). Thus, for political reasons as well as for idealistic ones, Reagan has every incentive to reach out to the Democrats in search of consensus.

Would the Democrats have any incentive to meet him even halfway? There is a strong case that they do. They have learned that the peace issue is highly complicated. Just as Reagan had to move to the center, they did too. Although there was much emotional support for a nuclear freeze and for the notion of banning nuclear weapons from outer space, voters did not favor positions they suspected might mean unilateral U.S. concessions. And if Reagan II is at all successful in restarting arms control talks and in otherwise improving U.S.-Soviet relations, the Democrats will have very little to gain from the issue. They would either have to come in on the left of the Republicans or else follow a me-too line, both politically highly unattractive. Thus they would have considerable reason to ease the peace issue out of politics, concentrate their 1988 strategy on the economy, and earn at least some of the credit that would derive from bipartisanship.

The Democrats would have to disown the quasi-isolationist and quasi-pacifist positions of many liberals (which Walter Mondale did only partly toward the end of the campaign). Similarly, Reagan would have to continue distancing himself from the far right. As the preceding pages suggest, there is a lot of room for him to do that without in any real sense "going soft." He can argue with reason that he is now able to negotiate from strength. A tough but realistic position on arms control may well win bipartisan approval. (A formally constituted, bipartisan body to deal with Soviet policy, which has been proposed, sounds excessively bureaucratic, but if it is necessary to get Congress involved, it should be tried.)

Agreement might be harder on issues like Central America and the military budget. But among the things Reagan could safely concede would be some further reductions in the defense budget combined with overall reform of the armed forces. Defense expenditures growing at a somewhat slower but sustainable rate backed by bipartisan consensus would be far more impressive to the Soviets than higher defense expenditures, which are probably not sustainable and at the mercy of congressional or partisan politics. One of the greatest boons to the Soviets over the years has been American inconsistency and the chance of playing Democrats off against Republicans. To avoid this and to achieve at least partial consensus would be worth a great deal.

1 See Robert W. Tucker, "The Nuclear Debate," Foreign Affairs, Fall 1984.

2 See James A. Thomson, "After Two Tracks: Integrating START and INF," The Washington Quarterly, Spring 1984.

3 See Strobe Talbott, Deadly Gambits, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

4 Time, March 5, 1984.

5 Address to the Time Conference on the Atlantic Alliance, April 1983, Department of State Bulletin, August 1983.

6 See Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, Report on Allied Contributions to the Common Defense, Department of Defense, March 1984.

7 Robert W. Tucker, "Our Obsolete Middle East Policy," Commentary, May 1983.

8 Richard W. Murphy, "The Response from the United States to Current Political Developments in the Middle East," American-Arab Affairs, Spring 1984.

9 See Norman Podhoretz, "Appeasement by Any Other Name," Commentary, July 1983.

??

??

Browse Related Articles on {{search_model.selectedTerm.name}}

{{indexVM.results.hits.total | number}} Articles Found

  • {{bucket.key_as_string}}