While President-elect Ronald Reagan and the rest of the Western world were celebrating Christmas, three time bombs ticked away that could demand of him prompt but difficult foreign policy decisions once he gets into the White House on Jan. 20.
The time bombs are labeled (in order of newsmedia attention over the Christmas holidays):
1. Iran, with the combination of tears and anger produced in the United States by the television appearance of the US hostages on their second Christmas in detention, by courtesy of their calculating captors.
2. Central America, with the left-wing guerrillas in El Salvador launching an offensive against the Carter administration-backed centrist government --the left's favor before Mr. Reagan takes over. A widespread assumption persists in Latin America that Mr. Reagan, once in the White House, would throw US support to the extreme right in El Salvador and elsewhere against both the left and center. [Related stories, Page 6.]
3. Sub-Saharan Africa all the way from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, where the pre-Christmas victory in Chad of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's diplomatic-military maneuvering continues to send out shock waves.
These are problems of increasing urgency on top of the self-evident and persistent challenges to US diplomacy represented by:
* The inevitable time lag before the US achieves assured and continued nuclear and military parity with the Soviet Union in response to the latter's intensified defense program.
* The situation in Poland, where the possibility of Soviet armed intervention has not been completely exorcised.
* The Soviet presence in Afghanistan and the consequent threat to Pakistan and Iran.
* The Gulf war between Iraq and Iran, which threatens the West's oil supplies.
* The long-term Arab-Israeli conflict, within which the once hopeful Camp David negotiating process is marking time.
* The smoldering crisis in southern Africa where, in the mineral-rich Republic of south Africa itself, potentially explosive racial polarization has not been halted by the white government's profession of good intentions.
* The growing tendency among Western European members of the alliance toward aloofness from the US on some issues. This is an apparent effort to keep Europe an island of detente (with the USSR, which subtly yet relentlessly promotes the concept) and force the American and Soviet superpowers to confine to the third world any resumption of the cold war between the two of them.
As far as the three flash points are concerned, on Iran and the hostages, it looks increasingly likely that President-elect Reagan will inherit the crisis unresolved from the Carter administration. There is little doubt that the televised messages from the hostages were allowed by the Iranians partly to manipulate or soften US public opinion.
The immediate problem for US diplomacy, regardless of the presidential transition, is to decide:
1. Whether to continue negotiating on the assumption that the Iranians, bazaar-style, have demanded the impossible to make any less-farfetched terms they eventually offer seem to the outside world generous concessions.
2. To contain within the US an increasingly outraged public opinion lest if force rash or unwise action on either a Carter or Reagan administration.
3. To ensure that the US is not made to look foolish by not having proper contingency plans for the right and most effective response to any Iranian move to put the hostages on trial or worse.
In some ways, largely because of an assumed radical difference of approach between the outgoing and incoming US administrations, the situation in Central America is more fraught with short-term risk for the US than that in any other area. Geographical proximity makes that self-evident.
Immediately north of the Central American isthmus in Mexico, with its huge and fast-growing population and with a 2,000-mile long common border with the US. A wrong move by the US could give openings to the Soviets and their Cuban proxies. The question: In this context, just what is "wrong"?
As for sub-Saharan Africa and the disturbing effects of the Libyan presence established in Chad on the southern rim of the great continental desert divide, West African governments -- led by Nigeria -- are repeating their calls for a withdrawal of foreign (i.e., Libyan) troops from Chad.
There is widespread concern at the trouble Colonel Qaddafi might cause south of the Sahara with his Soviet-supplied weaponry and his unsettling brand of revolutionary Islamic fundamentalism.
Within Nigeria, President Shehu Shagari (himself a Muslim) ordered federal troops over the past weekend to restore order in Kano, the country's biggest city in the Muslim north. For over a week, Muslim fundamentalists -- reportedly immigrants from Chad and Cameroon -- had been on the rampage in Kano, killing as many as 250 people.
Across the continent, Egyptian President Sadat spoke over the weekend of the threat that the Libyan presence in Chad posed to the entire Nile Valley (the Sudan and Egypt).He made it clear Egypt would never let Colonel Qaddafi get his hands on the waters of the Nile, without which neither Egypt nor the Sudan could survive.