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Semidetached Politics


Foreign affairs were a big factor in the election campaign of 1980. They have almost disappeared from the campaign of 1984. The public appears convinced that the President has succeeded in reaching the two goals that it has sought since the end of World War II: peace and strength. But this may well turn out to be an illusion fostered by a master of public relations and accepted by a complacent electorate equally disconnected from the outside world.

The best that can be said about four years of Reagan’s foreign policy is that things could have been much worse. They would have been, if its ideological premises and prescriptions had been followed consistently. Fortunately, two checks have often been applied. When reality obviously turned out to bear no relation to ideological fantasy, the latter had to be abandoned—although not without damage.

The other check has been the dominance of domestic concerns, including of course the President’s reelection. It was the domestic and social program that engaged the President’s attention, not his foreign policy. As for the American public, it has remained extremely suspicious of external military entanglements, unless—as in Grenada—they can be brief and easy. This is why covert intervention and military assistance rather than the direct involvement of US forces have been used in Central America, despite the President’s claims that the region is vitally important. This is also why the American forces in Lebanon were removed as soon as things became too hot—both on the ground and in national politics.

After four years, the administration cannot claim a single foreign policy triumph—not even a limited one comparable to Carter’s Camp David accord or Panama treaties. But what matters to the public is that there hasn’t been any major disaster, a major disaster being defined either as a national humiliation (the killing of badly protected Marines or officials by unknown terrorists is received, it seems, like an act of God, unlike the seizure of hostages by a government-supported mob) or as a protracted and inconclusive war. This allows the President to boast that he was right all along: we are at peace because of his own firm leadership and because the US is “standing tall.” Both claims are unwarranted.

The rhetoric and the displays of strength may have succeeded in ousting one “Marxist–Leninist” gang from power in Grenada, and in preventing the rebels in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua from making new gains. But if one looks at the effects of Reagan on friendly and neutral countries, one cannot be impressed. In Latin America, the Contadora group has persisted in a direction toward regional accommodation that clearly makes Washington unhappy. In southern Africa, the settlement of the Namibia issue and the departure of the Cubans from Angola have not been achieved. In Western Europe, the failure of the peace movements of West Germany and Britain results more from the steadfastness of the governments in Bonn and London than from that of Washington. In the Middle East, the multiple twists and fiascoes of American diplomacy have provoked disappointment in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, consternation among those whom we supported in Lebanon, contempt both in Israel and in Jordan.

What about “standing tall” next to the Soviets? It is true that they seem frustrated and on the defensive. But how much of this reversal can be attributed to Reagan’s will or skill? He has been faced, in four years, by three terminally ill Soviet leaders. Some of the Soviet set-backs have been self-inflicted: Gromyko’s clumsy handling of West German opinion at the time of the Euromissile crisis and the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan are the best examples. Soviet prudence in Central America was not new—the only exception, a costly one, was Khrushchev’s venture in Cuba in 1962. And both super-powers have found their respective European allies reluctant to give up the fruits of détente. In the Middle East, both superpowers have been used by the very clients each was trying to use. The Soviet predicament coincides with Reagan’s rise; its real causes lie in the Soviet Union’s domestic rigidities—political and economic—and in its external blunders—brutality and overextension.

The success of Reagan’s claim about his own leadership is the triumph of image over reality. Reagan has been an excellent salesman of the scanty and second-rate products in his suitcase. The unnegotiable “zero option” proposal in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces talks looked good to the American public; his vague concessions on “build-down” and Midgetman persuaded influential members of Congress to keep the ailing MX alive—at the cost of making the American position in the START talks incomprehensible. In the case of tiny Grenada the combination of Theodore Roosevelt-style machismo, and of Woodrow Wilson-style concern for “good government” in Central America was masterful. Despite the vagueness of the President’s UN speech on September 24, the appearance of a new flexibility toward the Soviet Union cannot fail to be helpful on November 6.

But a pose is not a policy. Strong leadership requires not only a sense of political strategy but a firm control of the apparatus of power. Both have been missing. The inside story of arms control during the Reagan administration shows that the President had no clear grasp of the issues, and that most of the negotiations (or rather contests) took place among the members of his own administration, not in Geneva, where he achieved absolutely nothing.1 Moreover, the same constant infighting and uncertainty about goals can be found in the administration’s Central American and Middle Eastern policies.

Reagan’s talent for reassuring people, for making defeats or failures look minor, or for preventing them from harming him, derives from something that is the opposite of strong leadership: he appears, and is (unlike Eisenhower, who seemed to be, but wasn’t) semidetached. He is not sufficiently involved in the arcane details of arms control to be affected by its collapse—and thus gets credited for his proclaimed good intentions: the public, one might say, recognizes itself in him.

It has been the same with the misfortunes in Lebanon: whereas Carter suicidally strove to put the albatross of the hostages on his own shoulders, Reagan has managed to keep his distance from what happened there. In foreign affairs, the impression of strong leadership has been, to some degree, a product of the national willingness to believe that an armaments program is a foreign policy. The reality is a president who has tended to behave like a constitutional monarch, but without the equivalent of a prime minister. During Reagan’s four years, neither the national security adviser nor the secretary of state has been allowed to become a strong manager of foreign policy—hence the Russian-roulette aspect of decision making, and the central importance of second- or third-level bureaucrats.


The trouble with semidetachment is simple. Unless the President becomes the determined master of policy, new directions and initiatives can all too easily be blocked by skillful bureaucratic infighters capable of pretending that their obstruction expresses the President’s real desires, and conforms to his ideology. During the next four years, moreover, various problems that have been pushed aside during the first Reagan administration will again emerge, and these will require major changes from the course pursued so far.

The first problem is obviously Soviet–American relations. It may well be that Mr. Reagan now believes that the US is strong enough to engage the Soviets in a dialogue aimed at reducing tensions. But there are two formidable obstacles, which even the desire to remain in the history books as a man of peace may not be able to overcome. The first obstacle is the rise in Soviet paranoia, or at least distrust, caused by the rhetoric of the first three years of the Reagan administration as well as by specific policies it has followed, especially in the military buildup. Both have led the Soviets to believe that the US was determined that the USSR no longer be regarded as an equal, and that it be treated both as an enemy and as a pariah. One does not have to be an apologist for the Soviet regime to believe that these wounds to not only Soviet but Russian self-respect are dangerous and unnecessary, as George Kennan has kept warning.

The second obstacle is the lack of serious proposals for a resumption of a dialogue. Very little attention has been given by the administration to what a new relation with Moscow—one that means some degree of cooperation as well as conflict—would entail. Indeed, how could a team that sees in Moscow the source of most of the troubles in the world acknowledge, through serious consultations, Soviet involvement in regions such as the Middle East or Latin America, where, according to Ronald Reagan, they have no right to be?

To be sure, arms control could provide a vast field of fruitful negotiations. But arms control by itself is no substitute for a better political relationship, and cannot progress in the absence of such a relationship. Moreover, here again, the legacy of the past four years will weigh heavily on the future. Both sides keep adding new offensive systems that seem to move them relentlessly toward the preparation for “limited” nuclear wars—wars designed to be fought, as they used to be before the nuclear age, primarily against military forces and targets.

But such wars could probably not be controlled. Each side now puts at risk the “survivability” of a large fraction of the other side’s forces, and thus creates a situation in which one or the other might feel tempted or compelled to strike first in a crisis. And both sides are developing weapons, such as land- and sea-based cruise missiles, that will be impossible to detect and count through the use of satellites and other kinds of military intelligence.

The extension of the nuclear arms race into space is a phenomenon of enormous importance, in three respects. First, it risks undermining further the traditional foundations of nuclear deterrence, by reinforcing the temptation to strike first, either in the state that fears falling behind in the contest to build defensive systems or in the state that thinks it is so far ahead that it risks no or little retaliation.

Second, it puts the wrong military goal first. Defensive systems might make sense, and contribute to deterrence, after offensive ones have been drastically reduced. Otherwise the buildup of defensive systems by each side will actually make arms control more difficult still, since each will be tempted to destroy the opponent’s satellites, and to overwhelm the opponent’s defenses by multiplying its own offensive means.

Third, we are witnessing again the mindless triumph of technology over politics. “Star Wars” has been launched without any clear idea of the ultimate objective. Is it the pipe dream of a perfect defense, or the very different goal of a limited defense of land-based missiles? If it is the latter, one ought to point out that there are other ways to protect them—such as making them mobile—and that there are other far less vulnerable components of the retaliatory force, such as submarines, which will soon be just as accurate.

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    For a perceptive account of this, see Strobe Talbott’s Deadly Gambits, reviewed in this issue.

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