The Unhappy Choice

No American election campaign has ever provided the occasion for a thorough and enlightening national debate on foreign policy. All too often, the candidates’ promises turned to dust as soon as the campaign was over—especially when it had been a promise to stay out of war. Since the beginning of the cold war, each presidential campaigner has tried to present himself both as a man of peace and as a firm champion of American strength and power. In this respect, 1980 offers nothing new.

For several months now, Jimmy Carter has attempted to invalidate charges of naïveté and “softness” by stressing new defense measures, a new strategic doctrine, new weapons, and a more active stand in the Persian Gulf; while Ronald Reagan has fought charges of irresponsible militancy with an emphasis on moderation and peace. Once again, nobody knows exactly what policy each of the two leading candidates would follow if he got elected. In Carter’s case, this is due both to the short-term, indeed the emergency, nature of many of the new moves following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and to the disarray of his foreign policy making team.

Much will depend on whether, in a second term, Carter would choose to preserve a system of institutionalized schizophrenia, with conflicting advice from, and a power struggle between, the national security adviser and the secretary of state, or whether he would—as his current, but apparently disgruntled, secretary of state suggests publicly—restore the primacy of the State Department. And in this case, it would make a great deal of difference if the successor of Mr. Muskie is someone with views close to those of Cyrus Vance, or if he is Zbigniew Brzezinski, at last able to carry to its culmination his long pursuit and imitation of his ex-Harvard rival Henry Kissinger.

One would think that the public had a right to know what view of the world it was endorsing in voting for Carter; and particularly, whether a vote for Carter means the final triumph of Brzezinski, a man of many talents but who happens to be caught periodically between the facile, kaleidoscopic rationalizations that spring from his fertile mind, and unchanging instincts and reflexes that are not all that different from what we find in Kissinger’s own reflections. Brzezinski, moreover, has none of the diplomatic skills that made of Kissinger a brilliant negotiator and a statesman widely respected even by those who, abroad, distrusted his methods or disliked his views. And the absence in Brzezinski’s modus operandi of what could be called a strategic level, halfway between sweeping, fleeting theories and shifty, quirky tactics, compounds the absence in Carter of a strategic conception between the preachy pieties and the “pragmatic,” disconnected decisions.

Nor does one know much about either the substance or the key officials of a Reagan foreign policy, notwithstanding the rumors that Haig or Shultz or even Kissinger will be named as secretary of state, perhaps before the election. The candidate’s own statements are too vague—deliberately—to provide…

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