Reagan's armada: a warning to Managua, little comfort at home
The concentration of two aircraft carrier task forces plus the battleship New Jersey off the coast of Central America cannot, by the wildest stretch of imagination, be a ''routine'' training exercise.
This past week President Reagan presented that concentration, with up to 4, 000 US combat troops going ashore in neighboring Honduras, to recalcitrant Nicaragua. He called it a routine training exercise. Obviously, he was trying to mollify the Congress and US public opinion while impressing the Marxist-inclined leadership of revolutionary Nicaragua.
Other events of the week included the arrival in Washington of Israel's foreign and defense ministers for consultation over the partial pullback of Israel's forces in Lebanon. The only problem was over what other forces, either international or Lebanese, might take over policing the areas the Israelis will vacate.
Also, this was the week when Poland officially dismantled martial law while its Western creditors met in Paris to consider what they might do to ease Poland's financial and economic problems. The story of Solidarity thus ended.
The dramatic highlight of the week was the leaking from White House and Pentagon sources of plans for surrounding Nicaragua with the biggest concentration of sea power since the Vietnam war.
If the plan is put fully into operation, one US carrier task force of eight vessels and a second force built around the world's only operational battleship, the USS New Jersey, will patrol off the west coast of Nicaragua. A second carrier task force will patrol off the east coast. After they are on station, a landing force of up to 4,000 ground combat troops will hold ''exercises'' in Honduras.
The United States is the only country in the world with the capability of putting together the naval force that is being deployed in Central American waters. Each carrier is armed with an entire air wing of 70 or more fighter aircraft. The US has 13 such carriers. The Soviets have two, of less than half the size.
Nicaragua is about the size of South Dakota. Its population is just under 2.5 million.
The forces Mr. Reagan is sending toward Nicaragua would be able to strangle the country economically or destroy everything that matters by bombing. Mr. Reagan says he has no thought of using them in combat, but a member of the ruling junta in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, must wonder just what might happen if and when those forces are all within range.
At the very least the forces are a shield under which right-wing units of refugee Nicaraguans could push into Nicaragua with the possibility of friendly air support.
The disclosure of the plan, plus the arrival of its first unit, the carrier USS Ranger with its escorts, off the west coast of Nicaragua, might well concentrate the thinking of the Nicaraguan leadership on the possibility of entering into an agreement with the US to cease and desist from aiding the insurgents in El Salvador.
That would be a happy outcome for Mr. Reagan, particularly if it occurred toward the end of this year, when plans for next year's presidential election campaign are getting under way.
The President's Latin America negotiator, Richard Stone, has been shuttling around the area making himself available to anyone who might be interested in exploring such ideas.
The chances seem to favor Mr. Reagan in all this. The force contemplated for Central America is too big for Nicaragua itself to challenge even if the Cubans were so foolish as to commit everything they have to a battle. The two US carriers alone carry roughly half the number of planes in the Cuban air force. And of course the entire US Air Force is just back of the other side of Cuba ready to deal with anything unpleasant Fidel Castro might be tempted to try.
In military terms Mr. Reagan's Central American expedition is a force more than adequate to handle anything it might run into around Central America. The Soviets are some 6,000 miles away. Mr. Reagan has underlined by his ''routine exercises'' the plain fact that in Central American waters the US is just as militarily supreme as the Soviet Union is in Eastern Europe.
Washington has never attempted to interfere on the ground with Soviet military operations in Eastern Europe. It is not reasonable to think that they would even consider getting into a confrontation with the US over Nicaragua - 6, 000 miles away.
The above puts a question mark over last week's news sensation, the appointment of Henry Kissinger to head a special commission on Central American policy. This week Mr. Kissinger thought his work might take until February to complete. The President had suggested December.
By February the Nicaraguans will either have been impressed by Mr. Reagan's ''routine exercises'' or decided to go down fighting. In either case, what Mr. Kissinger reports in February is unlikely to be earthshaking. The action is not around his office. The orders are coming out of the White House, largely and apparently from the office of the President's national-security adviser, William Clark.
During the week reporters discovered that the Pentagon was usually well behind the White House, information having emerged from the White House before the Pentagon had been brought up to date.
If the Central American operation succeeds and brings some form of accommodation with Nicaragua by the end of the year, Mr. Reagan will have his major foreign policy problems under control for the 1984 political campaign.
There is nothing further to be done about Poland. Sad as it may be, the story of Solidarity is finished. The West is working now on ways and means of pumping fresh Western credits and technology into Poland to ease the lot of the Polish people.
And the Middle East is on ice for the moment, although of course it can flare up again anytime. The main news is that Israel is going to consolidate its military position in southern Lebanon along shorter lines, with Washington's consent.
Israeli negotiators talked the problem over this week with US Secretary of State George Shultz at the State Department and came out reporting that there had been ''no pressure'' on them. When the Israelis say that there is ''no pressure'' on them, they mean that US-Israeli relations are satisfactory to Israel. Mr. Reagan has clear sailing into 1984 on that subject.