Farmers see politics behind grain embargo decision
Eldon Hackenburg welcomed the rain soaking into his 400 acres of rich Ohio farmland on Friday, when President Reagan ended the Soviet grain embargo. But this Midwestern farmer was far more impressed by the rain than by the presidential action. An end to the embargo won't change planting schedules for Mr. Hackenburg and probably won't have any appreciable effect on grain prices.
Like many of his farm-belt neighbors, he shrugs off the embargo decision as a political move with far more importance for Washington than for the farm states.
In ending the 16-month-old embargo April 24, Mr. Reagan spelled out his reasons. He said that his campaign pledge to end the embargo was based on his belief that "American farmers had been unfairly singled out to bear the burden of this ineffective national policy." The decision to lift the embargo was delayed, said Reagan, in order to avoid having the Soviets interpret it as a sign of weakness.
Now, however, Reagan explained, his administration has made it clear to the Soviets that "we will react strongly to acts of aggression wherever they take place. There will never be a weakening of this resolve."
Sharply divided congressional reaction to ending the embargo has added new questions.
No one yet has answered the question of who suffered most from the embargo: the Soviets from having their grain imports restricted or the US farmers from having their grain exports restricted. Leading American farm groups estimate that farmers lost as much as $3 billion. Government reports indicate, however, that a 3 million metric-ton shortfall in Soviet grain imports has disrupted meat production and forced the Soviets to dig deeply into their strategic stockpiles of grain.
Now in place of the question of "who lost" in economic terms, the question is "who won politically?"
The most visible loser politically seems to be Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. He fought vigorously to maintain the embargo -- and lost.
Mr. Haig followed up the President's embargo announcement by delivering a tough speech, tagging the Soviets as "the greatest source of international insecurity." In addition, Haig explained that ending the embargo was primarily the result of the President's campaign commitment rather than a sign that Soviet-US relations are improving.
Yet both Soviet and American allies may see the decision as a sign that domestic political considerations can outweigh foreign policy arguments -- even when these arguments are voiced in the strongest terms by Secretary of State Haig.
Immediately after the embargo was lifted, Soviet officials started meeting with representatives from the US Department of Agriculture over a new US-Soviet grain sales agreement to replace the five-year agreement which ends in September.
This eager Soviet response disproves fears that the Soviets now consider the US an unreliable grain supplier and have shifted their business to Argentina, Australia, and Canada.
Any major Soviet grain purchases from the US over the coming months will be seen as proof that the embargo was so effective that the Soviets exhausted their grain stockpiles. Proof of the embargo's effectiveness could transfer more farm policy decisions from John Block's Department of Agriculture to Haig's State Department.
So for the present, the embargo debate continues. On one side, Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas argues that ending the embargo was sensible because "we can't stop the Soviets with embargoes." Others argue that the Reagan decision sends "wrong signals" to the Soviets at a time when the Soviets refuse to back down either in Afghanistan or Poland.
For Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin, reopening American granaries to the hungry Soviets because they have not invaded Poland is "like rewarding a bandit for not holding up a bank."
The long-term political winner in the embargo battle could turn out to be the Democrats. Supporters and critics alike argue that President Reagan lifted the embargo at this time primarily to sign up the extra congressional votes needed to get his budget through Congress.
But Reagan may pay a high price for this support at a later date. If Haig is correct in his assessment of aggressive Soviet intentions in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, Reagan could find it necessary to reimpose the embargo.
A reimposed embargo would replace the unpopular "Carter embargo" with an equally unpopular "Reagan embargo." In addition, America's allies remember how they suffered from Carter's "zigzags."
US allies recently heard stiff lectures from the Reagan administration on the need to maintain the Soviet grain embargo. So an on-again off-again approach would be an unwelcome s ign that Reagan is himself capable of zigzag policies.