SOME wry wit suggested the other day that, apart from the Iran debacle and the diversion of arms profits to the Nicaraguan contras, Ronald Reagan has had a pretty good year in 1986. The tongue-in-cheek comment underlined the obvious: For Mr. Reagan, as was the case with his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, Iran has become the trap that snared him, affecting his image, his effectiveness, and perhaps his entire presidency.
Can President Reagan recover politically in 1987?
He heads into the year with surgery scheduled; that usually generates public sympathy.
He has a new national security adviser, Frank C. Carlucci, who is off to a promising start, cleaning house and bringing a badly needed upgrading of staff to the National Security Council.
It is a good bet that there will soon be a new director of central intelligence, replacing William J. Casey. It is possible that there will also be a new chief of staff, replacing Donald T. Regan.
With some new players on his team, and at least private admission in the White House that selling arms to Iran was a terrible idea, Reagan can probably get his Iran policy back on track in 1987. That is not going to mean a great deal. Iran seems in little mood to get Reagan off the hook. But at least the United States can be thoughtfully positioning itself against the time of change in Iran. And in the meantime, nobody will be talking about sending arms to Iran.
It may be that US policy toward Iran can be dragged back on track in 1987; but Reagan's credibility and integrity remain in need of repair. Congressional investigations into the Iran debacle, and Reagan's role in it, will drag on through much of 1987.
Messrs. North and Poindexter, the two military officers who served on the NSC staff, are key to revealing the President's involvement in the unwise and probably illegal alleged diversion of arms profits to the Nicaraguan contras.
Having served the President ill by their management of that diversion, they are compounding that disservice by withholding the testimony that would clarify his role.
Their decision to tell what they know will probably decide just when the turning point will come in public assessment of Reagan's truthfulness.
But though the Iran debacle clouds all activity in the White House, Reagan's greater setback in 1986 may have been the collapse of arms-control negotiations at Reykjavik. Getting those negotiations back on track may be his greatest opportunity in 1987.
Reykjavik was a meeting hastily conceived and ill prepared. Mr. Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, ended up there like a couple of riverboat gamblers trading nuclear weapons like chips in a poker game. That is no way to achieve agreement on such a serious and complex issue.
As a matter of fact, some US allies who have been pushing arms control were shocked that the prospect advanced so far at Reykjavik and were relieved that no deal was cut there.
While there have long been demonstrations in Western Europe against US nuclear weapons, many European governments were decidedly unhappy at talk of phasing out nuclear ballistic missiles within a decade. They want the US nuclear umbrella. They are concerned, if it should be removed, about the overwhelming preponderance of Soviet conventional weaponry. This does not mean that they are against a more cautious and coordinated approach to nuclear arms reduction.
First, the Reagan administration must resolve differences of approach to arms control within its own ranks. It is here that the new NSC staff under Carlucci can make a significant contribution.
With a united position, the Reagan administration would then be able to negotiate seriously with the Soviets, who have been flashing signals indicating their continuing interest.
A major agreement on arms control could yet make 1987 an historic milestone for the Reagan presidency.