Waning White House influence on America's allies and clients
Seldom if ever has a President of the United States been treated as contemptuously as Ronald Reagan was treated this past week by his country's most dependent client, Israel, or as defiantly as by his country's most loyal ally, Britain.
The two episodes, plus other similar though less prominent trends in world affairs, disclose a remarkable decline in the ability of the White House to lead or influence the policies and the actions of allies, friends, and clients.
The writ of Washington does not run far in these times.
The story of the week of Israel and the President opened on Aug. 1 with heavy Israeli bombing of west Beirut. It was so heavy and so indiscriminate that NBC senior commentator John Chancellor, who was present, called it ''savage''; so heavy that the President told reporters at the White House that ''the bloodshed must be stopped'' and that ''I lost patience a long time ago.''
The President also declared at that same encounter with reporters that he would, on the following day, be ''firm'' when he was scheduled to receive the visiting foreign minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir.
The President's loss of patience and his ''firmness'' were underlined by the arrangements for the meeting the next morning, Monday, Aug. 2. Reporters were invited by White House aides to notice that this time there was no friendly banter between President and guest before or after the meeting. The two were seated across a table from each other, not side by side as usual. No photographs showed handshakes or chumminess. The meeting was limited to precisely 25 minutes.
After Mr. Shamir left the White House, a formal statement was issued which said the President had told his guest that ''the world can no longer accept a situation of constantly escalating violence'' and that Israel should allow food and medical supplies to enter west Beirut.
Mr. Shamir was ushered out of the presidential office at 10:20 Monday morning. Reports were coming in at that time of Israeli armored forces moving up toward the front lines around west Beirut.
During Tuesday, Aug. 3, White House aides and State Department officials said the President's negotiator at the scene of action, Philip C. Habib, seemed to be on the verge of obtaining an agreement from the PLO to leave Beirut voluntarily. But on Wednesday, Aug. 4 (just after midnight in Beirut, six in the morning in Washington), Israel's armored columns surged into west Beirut.
The Israeli advance into west Beirut began 43 1/2 hours after Mr. Shamir had listened to the President's wishes at the White House. The government of Israel was undeterred by the President's wishes and unimpressed by his ''firmness.''
Had the PLO withdrawal from west Beirut been arranged through diplomacy, the PLO would have acquired an obligation from Washington and been closer to that recognition by Washington that it seeks. The Israeli government, obviously, prefers that the PLO be expelled by Israeli military power than through US diplomacy.
Israel's action in ignoring the wishes of the President had to assume that the President is politically incapable of imposing meaningful sanctions on Israel for defiance of his wishes.
In theory he can cut off the flow of US weapons and economic support to Israel. In practice presidential sanctions tend to be overturned in the Congress , where Israel has repeatedly been able to swing more votes than whoever at the time was in the White House.
Roughly half of all US foreign aid goes to Israel. It totals about $3 billion a year.
Britain's defiance of the President came over the now familiar ''pipeline'' deal. It is remarkable for the sharpness of language used.
The action was in the form of an order to four British companies to honor contracts they have signed to deliver equipment for the natural gas pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe. The French and Italian governments had previously taken similar action.
Lord Cockfield, speaking for the Board of Trade, which has jurisdiction in such matters, stated to the House of Lords that President Reagan's attempt to block the pipeline ''is an unacceptable extension of American extraterritorial jurisdiction in a way which is repugnant in international law.'' The President is trying to extend his ban to foreign subsidiaries or licensees of US companies.
''Unacceptable'' and ''repugnant'' are strong words for an ally to apply to a major foreign policy action by the President of the United States.
The British government has heretofore tried to be the most loyal of the West European allies. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has gone further than any of her peers in Europe to be supportive of Mr. Reagan and of his policies. This is the first overt break with him. There is no doubt from the action and the choice of words that the British are steering themselves from Mr. Reagan's appearance of wanting to wage economic warfare against the Soviets.
These two episodes of the week occur in a context in which others seem to be showing decreasing willingness to respect Washington's wishes. The new regime in El Salvador is allegedly ''improving'' its treatment of its own people but not so fast as would be convenient for President Reagan, whose support for that regime is coming under heavy fire in the Congress.
Japan is continuing with plans for a joint Japanese-Soviet oil drilling operation off Sakhalin Island. Japan is also proceeding with an improvement in its military posture at its own pace.
Mr. Reagan's foreign policies are conspicuously unpopular among traditional friends, supporters, and allies of the US.
Not since World War II have important allies been quite as outspoken in disagreement as the West Europeans have been this past few weeks over the Siberian pipeline. And certainly no wish of an American President has been so callously disregarded in many a year as was President Reagan's wish for an end to the bloodshed in Lebanon disregarded by Israel.