IN one sense President Reagan is fortunate in having his first big foreign policy crisis hit him within the first six months of his second term. It leaves him with 31/2 years to recover and get on with other important presidential business. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had his biggest foreign policy crisis (the embassy hostages in Iran) all the way through his last year in office. It smothered that last year, cast a pall over the accomplishments of the previous years, and virtually ensured his defeat for reelection.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the most popular presidents in American history, had a nasty foreign policy crisis during his own last year in office. An American U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over the Soviet Union.
President Eisenhower claimed it had been over Soviet territory by accident. The pilot landed alive and talkative. He told all. The President of the United States had to back down, admit a falsehood, and see the ruin of his attempt to seek a conciliation with the Soviets.
The U-2 affair happened on the eve of the opening of a peace conference in Paris. President Eisenhower had spent months working up to that conference. He had high hopes of something coming from it. The U-2 affair blew it out of the water. There was no conference.
Mr. Reagan's crisis over the hostages from TWA Flight 847 gave him a chance to prove that in a real crisis he behaves pragmatically and prudently. He had to swallow a lot of past posturing to do what he did -- which essentially was to be patient and do nothing rash. He had to learn a lot, in a hurry, about how complicated the world is, and how difficult for even the greatest power on earth to solve a problem created by a handful of fanatics.
The hijackers are a radical fraction of the Shiite community, which itself is a minority fraction of the Muslim community. Yet two fanatics from that fraction of a fraction could take and hold the hostages and defy the vast armaments of the US.
It is another lesson in the limitations on military power.
Such a lesson is bound to broaden his basis in experience for dealing with the immensely more important matter of US relations with the Soviet Union. In the long run his place in history will depend on his record in two primary areas, the American economy and relations with the Soviets. If during the next three years he can keep the economy growing without a revival of inflation, and reduce the chance of war with the Soviets, he will be a successful President.
The reverse is also true. If at the end of his term inflation is back, the economy is stagnant, and relations with the Soviets are more dangerous than they are now, he will be judged a failure.
In other words, Ronald Reagan has a lot of extremely important business to handle during the next 31/2 years. The handling of it will require political skill and the kind of wisdom that can come only from having to deal with intractable problems. Experience is the greatest teacher in world affairs.
Mr. Reagan came to office with the simplistic idea that the Soviet Union is the source of all evil in the world. He has been struggling for a week now with an intractable problem that has its origins inside the Middle East and derives in no way from any Soviet policy or nonpolicy. So far as this problem is concerned, the Soviet Union does not exist.
Handling a problem like this calls for patience, coolness, and all the knowledge that experts can assemble. It means arriving at decisions on the basis of expert knowledge, not on the basis of ideological assumptions. Merely having to face this problem is itself enough to sharpen the skills a president needs in order to make wise decisions. At the very least Mr. Reagan is bound to appreciate more the knowledge of the experts at the State Department.
Mr. Reagan will better handle his foreign policy problems in the future for having had to pass through this ordeal.