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Reagan's stumbling priorities: right after all

An unusual contrast between domestic and foreign affairs performance emerged out of Ronald Reagan's first hundred days in the presidency. In domestic affairs the new administration did, as it promised, take office "running." It had a coherent program and a clear sense of direction. It presented the first comprehensive and serious attempt since inflation broke loose to stabilize the American economy, save the dollar, and control inflation. It pushed consistently and firmly for its program.

In foreign affars the performance was exactly the reverse. The administration started out with a set of attitudes, not a single one of which has survived intact. There has been neither coherence nor consistency nor firmness.

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Long before the hundred days ran out it had become clear that foreign policy was being run primarily as a servant of domestic politics, not by experts in foreign policy.

It is difficult to avoid a conclusion that, while in domestic affairs the Reagan people had done their homework before taking office, they had approached foreign affairs with simplistic assumptions drawn from a remarkable ignorance, or purposeful blindness, of the big world outside the US.

They did pick for their secretary of state a man who had experience in world affairs, although primarily European. But instead of letting Alexander Haig run foreign policy as he thought he was going to be allowed to do, they subordinated him to White House domestic political expert Edwin Meese and overruled him again and again.

The most graphic example of Reagan administration stumbling in foreign affairs was the early case of El Salvador. It started as an announcement of gunds for a regime that had been asking for economic and political help. It was done, it was said, "to draw a line" in front of Soviet subversion in Central America. It was apparently intended to be a first step in a campaign to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba.

All of that is now "gone with the wind." The public reaction was politically disastrous. White House mail first ran about 25 to 1 against the idea of guns to El Salvador. Many assumed that guns would be followed by American soldiers, as in Vietnam. At latest report the mail was still running 10 to 1 against the operation.

The emphasis in policy toward El Salvador has switched back to where it was when the Carter people left office. At that time Washington was putting pressure on the ruling junta to identify and punish the persons responsible for killing two US agricultural experts and four US Roman Catholic missionaries, three of whom were nuns. The killers apparently have been identified. Washington is pushing to have them arrested. The idea of overthrowing Castro has been pushed out of sight.

Even more visible has been the contrast between tough talk against the Soviet Union and repeal of the grain embargo. The only act of "toughness" toward the Soviets during the hundred days was the launching of a program for a major increase in defense spending. But so far the big jump in defense is nothing more than a proposed rise in appropriations.

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Also, production of some new weapons already on the order books is running far behind schedule. New nuclear submarines at Groton, Conn., are two years behind. Chrysler is having problems with the new M1 tanks. Could US industry actually meet the plans for a massive increase in weaponry even in Congress put up all of the money? It is doubtful.

So, while there was a lot of anti-Soviet rhetoric during the first hundred days, there was no actual performance.

Not only was the grain embargo lifted. The Reagan administration also backed away from its original veto on arms-control negotiations with the Soviets. The European allies had insisted on such negotiations as a prerequisite for deploying new nuclear weapons to NATO. There are to be negotiations on arms control regardless of Soviet reinforcement (rather than removal) of their troops in Afghanistan.

Revision under pressure from realities include:

* At the beginning there was a rhetorical tilt toward white South Africa. By the end of the hundred days the administration was back almost to the point where the Carter people had left off; against apartheid in South Africa and siding with the new black African states in efforts to convert Namibia from a white South African property into a genuinely independent black country.

* For the Middle East the original purpose was to subordinate the search for an Arab-Israeli peace to building an anti-Soviet consensus including both Arabs and Israelis. The administration is back to trying both at the same time. It has shocked Israel by intending to sell five AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. It is also requiring some restraint on Israel's military operations in Lebanon.

* A pro-Taiwan intention has been reversed in favor of continuing the Carter policy of improving relations with mainland China.

All of which probably means that the Reagan people have got their priorities right after all.There can be no effective toughness against the men of Moscow without underlying strength. The strength of the US in world affairs must rest on a healthy economy. Military strength is merely the surface of strength. Its muscle and sinew is economic. The Reagan administration is putting the economy of the country first.

Nothing was finished during the first hundred days. It may be months yet before we know whether Reagan reforms will put the US on the road to economic soundness. But the first priority of the administration is economic health. Foreign policy is obviously the stepchild o f the administration. No wonder it resembled a novice trying to manage a sailboat.

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