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Updating foreign policy

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As many people are noting, President Reagan has yet to put his stamp on foreign policy. The ostensible reason for this is the priority attention being given to the economy. But the gap is curious nonetheless. Especially since Mr. Reagan came into office vowing to restore the United States to a position of pre- eminence in the world.

Washington is trying, of course -- by toughly confronting the Russians and urging the Western allies and the third world to follow its lead. Yet somehow no one seems to be listening, and that tells us something about the world we live in which, though hardly a novel idea, needs to be better understood. Namely, that the US is trying to flex its muscles at a time when control of other peoples' destinies is no longer possible. Superpower power, in short, is simply not all-powerful. Nations today, driven by intense nationalism and desire for social change, increasingly tend to bend US or Soviet policy to their own purposes and go their own way.

Consider these areas of the world where American and Soviet objectives are frustrated:

* In the Middle East the US would like a comprehensive peace settlement. It expresses its displeasure with Israel's use of American military equipment for air raids into Lebanon and its bombing of Iraq. Yet Menachem Begin probably narrowly won election because of his bold defiance of the West. He continues West Bank resettlement and other policies that utterly undermine Washington's objectives.

* In the Mideast, too, the US seeks to build up a "rapid deployment force" to counter Soviet expansionism. Arab nations of the region, however, see Israel, not the Russians, as the central threat.

* In Poland the USSR faces its greatest challenge since World War II. For all the saber rattling and hectoring from Moscow, the Poles, brought to their extremity under a discredited system, struggle to break free.

* In Iran, one of the most strategically crucial states in the Persian Gulf, the US and the USSR watch helplessly as the forces of revolution continue their turbulent course. The nation's fanatic Islamic rulers could not care less what either superpower thinks.

* In South Africa the new US administration is trying more carrot than stick in hopes of winning a settlement in Namibia. The new American warmth so far has produced nothing tangible. The government in Pretoria shows no inclination to accommodate Washington for all the latter's change of posture.


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