Washington — President Carter will, I believe, have to come out of his hideaway of not debating foreign policy and soon start confronting the challenges of his rivals -- Democratic and Republican.
He can't remain silent indefinitely. The value of such a stance politically will begin to fade. IT is a disservice to the American people.
It is understandable that the President did not choose to debate the Iranian crisis in a partisan atmosphere in the Iowa primary when it was at a most delicate stage and when a show of division within the US could do great harm. But national unity on the hostage issue is strong and the prospects for release of the hostages are improving.
But the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the threat it poses to the vital interests of the United States in the oil-producing states of the Middle East are a different matter.
How to deal with them needs to be debated, and to put them before the country in a presidential campaign is the best way to get all sides of the issues into the open. A consensus which rests on artificial silence is dangerously fragile.
The view of the White House seems to be that the foreign crisis of Afghanistan and its potential for trouble, including the possibility of war, have been put outside the reach of campaign challenge.
They haven't, and I think that the sooner debate begins the better. Actually it is already beginning, and the only nonparticipant thus far is Jimmy Carter, who seems to be timid about risking his standing in the polls.
Senator Kennedy and Governor Brown are starting to challenge him to respond to their criticisms. On the Republican side George Bush, the front-runner, Ronald Reagan, How- ard Baker, and John Connally are beginning to raise questions, not about whether Carter is now headed in the right direction in getting ready to meet the Russian threat, but about whether past Carter policies did not contribute to the plight in which the nation finds itself.
I believe the President cannot afford to remain in his political sanctuary of silence. Either the policy of silence will become totally unacceptable to the voters or the sanctuary will itself break down under pressure.
The reason is that there is an intelligent, credible, honest case to be made -- and his rivals are beginning to make it. The case is that for the past three years the Carter administration has been making statements and pursuing policies exactly the opposite of what it is now proclaiming is necessary and that these actions have, in the judgment of administration critics, done much to bring on the crisis the President is now attempting to contain.
The case the critics make is that while the Russians were building up their military power, we were cutting down ours; that while the Soviets were using Cuban troops to spread Soviet influence in Angola, Ethiopia, and South Yemen and helping Vietnam murder the government and people of Cambodia, the Carter message seemed to be that the Soviets could count on the US to put up little resistance of Russian expansionism. In this period the President cancelled the neutron bomb, vetoed a Congress-approved nuclear aircraft carrier, and cut back other increases in defense spending.
There is strong evidence that voter opinion welcomes Carter's new get-ready-for-the-worst call to arms.
As a result of our experience in Vietnam, Carter said that he "hoped the US would never again send military forces to a distant land." Now he is proposing to be ready to use force in distant lands in the Middle East if Russia "assaults the vital interests of the United States."
Despite these criticisms, President Carter may persuade the country that he is the best man to guide the course he has now seemed to embrace, but he should not be able to excape an accounting of the past.
The best accounting would be for him to take on both his Democratic and Republican rivals in direct debate.