Clearing the ground for US-Soviet dialogue. A stronger Gorbachev is set for summit, but does he want easier relations?
There is one important thing to know about the background of this week's events. It is that President Hafez Assad of Syria cleared the rescue of the American hostages with Moscow before taking on the task. The hijacking took place on June 14. Mr. Assad went to Moscow on June 19. He was back in Damascus on June 22. The release was buttoned up on June 28. It happened on June 30. Washington leaked the word two days later that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would meet President Reagan in Geneva in November.
And to round out the whole affair, July 2 was also the day when Moscow's Andrei Gromyko was eased out of the Foreign Ministry after a 28-year tenure and elevated to the dignity of the presidency of the Soviet Union. He was replaced by a foreign policy novice, thus providing Mr. Gorbachev with freedom to conduct his own foreign policy.
Mr. Gromyko's replacement was Eduard A. Shevardnadze, reportedly a man of proven ability as a local political leader in the Soviet republic of Georgia and handpicked by Gorbachev for elevation to the Politburo.
Thus the ground is cleared for President Reagan's first meeting with the new Soviet leader. That in turn could be the beginning of a new dialogue between Washington and Moscow.
Such high-level meetings have not always led to easier East-West relations. The Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna in 1961 led into the Cuban missile crisis. But it is also possible that the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting, to be in Geneva in November, could be the beginning of a second d'etente.
Would Gorbachev want an easier and more cooperative relationship with the United States?
He has spent his first hundred days as leader consolidating his position at home. He has cultivated public opinion as no Soviet leader since Lenin. He has removed his rivals for the leadership, filled the ranks of the Politburo with his own people, and made himself the master both in domestic and foreign affairs.
There is little on the public record to indicate whether he might consider it desirable and the time propitious for an attempt at an abatement of the tension in East-West relations which dates from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The only real clue is the fact that before coming to power he visited London and made a favorable impression on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was sufficiently impressed by his candor and his points of view as expressed to her at the time that she recommended him to Reagan, who has been seeking a meeting with him ever since.
Two essentials for a useful meeting are already established.
Reagan is at the beginning of his second term, with 31/2 years ahead of him. He enjoys widespread public support in his foreign policies. He has the political freedom to move toward an easier relationship with the Soviets if he chooses to do so. His conservative backers would object, in fact already are objecting, but would probably not have sufficient political influence to block that option.
Gorbachev has mastered the Soviet political machine. He is free of the attitudes and dogmatisms of the older generation of Soviet leaders. He is the first of the ``new men'' in Moscow to rise to the top. He was born in 1931 and hence remembers World War II, but nothing before that.
His known interests are largely in the economy. He is regarded as a pragmatist rather than an ideologist. Might he play in the Soviet system the role that Deng Xiaoping has played in China, the role of the modernizer and reformer?
Gorbachev is unquestionably in full charge. If it happens that he wants an easier relationship with the US he could move in that direction. There would be a conservative opposition in the Politburo, which sets national policy, just as there is in White House councils in Washington. But Gorbachev is undoubtedly as free to move toward conciliation as is Reagan.
All of this fell into place with the simple fact that President Assad of Syria got Moscow's consent for the hostage rescue operaton before he went ahead with it.
We in the West have no way of knowing whether it was anything more than a mere clearance. We do know that Assad discussed the matter with Gorbachev. We also know that the Soviet press took up an anti-hijacking posture during the hostage affair. Add that Kremlin experts in the West generally agree that Moscow does not like rampant Muslim fundamentalism along its southern borders. Among other things, it might spread into the Muslim provinces inside the Soviet Union.
It is possible that Gorbachev actually encouraged President Assad to support Nabih Berri, leader of Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Amal militia, in order to strengthen the more moderate element in the Shiite community in Lebanon.
But, whatever the intent or the reasoning in Moscow, the effect has been to rescue the hostages, encourage the moderate Shiites, upstage the more radical Shiites, and reopen relations between Washington and Syria. It also establishes the possibility that Gorbachev and Reagan will find that they have a common interest in curbing international hijacking and terrorism.
What else can they talk about usefully?
That is the subject that will occupy the back rooms of the State Department in Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Moscow until November.