Needed: a foreign policy 'jazz band leader'

If there was a honeymoon, it ended quickly for Mr. Reagan in the matter of foreign and defense policy. The main charge is that he does not actually have a foreign/defense policy.

US News & World Report, not ideologically given to criticizing Republican presidents, said in a May cover story that US foreign policy is in "disarray." James Schlesinger, scrupulously evenhanded in his availability to serve and attack presidents of any stripe, alleged in June that there is a "substantial void in American foreign policy" -- no "specifics," no "goals," no "intruments." The old economics of professor concluded that "the administration has been inclined to breeze along on an image of domestic good will and international toughness."

Anyone interested in defending the President against these charges could make several points.

First, Mr. Reagan seems to understand that the American public and political systems are able to deal with only one big issue at a time, and he has accorded top priority to strengthening the economy. Whether his plan will work is a separate question, but two things are clear: (1) the old ways got us into our current predicament, suggesting that we must try something new even without guarantees that it will work any better; (2) a sound economy is the basic requirement for sound foreign/defense policy.

If the President can get his economic package enacted by Congress before the August recess, he could plausibly think that would be soon enough to make his first big speech on foreign/defense policy which his critics have been demanding. Then our main worry should be whether he will encounter the familiar "o.b.e." (overtaken by events) problem before he can get around to elevating forreign/defense policy to the top of his agenda.

A second reply to the Reagan critics would suggest that only a few categories of people really want hard specifics on American foreign/defense policy, and depriving them of it may do not great harm. Adversaries would be pleased to hear details, but there is no obligation to accommodate them. Pundits (mainly journalists, scholars, and frustrated former officials) desire specifics as grist for their mills, but they are never at a loss for words. Cabinet agencies such as the Departments of Defense and State often seem eager for White House guidance, but they have ordinarily muddled through without it -- and might even be appalled if they ever got it, given that hard presidential guidance could restrain their room for bureaucratic maneuver.

A third rebuttal against the Reagan critics suggests that, if hard decisions make bad law, then similarly it could be said that hard presidential statements make bad foreign/defense policy. A delicate line exists between saying too little and too much. Secretary Acheson announced that Korea was outside of our "defense perimeter" six months before we went to war there. Secretary Dulles prattled about "rolling back the Iron Curtain" and "massive retaliation," but we never did either one Candidate Kennedy told 100,000 Cuban refugees packed into the Orange Bowl Stadium in the fall of 1960 that -- if elected -- he would solve the Castro problem, and then he mistakenly tried to do it at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. Later, he huffed and puffed at the Berlin wall, even mobilizing reserves, but the wall still stands.

Totalitarian systems can mobilize their minions for initiatives in pursuit of firm goals. Democracies of free peoples are committed to individualism over collectivism, are hard to mobilize, and are compelled to improvise. Although readiness is clearly a good idea, what we need are not so much hard policy dicta but rather general inclinations leaving ample room for maneuver. Mr. Reagan's test will come when we discover how gifted he may be at improvisation with whatever readiness we have achie ved when hard foreign/defense policy challenges arise.

The truly worrisome thing in all of this focuses on the role of the chief presidential aide in charge of improvisation in foreign/defense policy. Over all the years since World War II while the United States has been heavily involved internationally, a series of dominant figures has emerged to provide a sense of cohesive direction. Under Truman it was first Forrestal, briefly Marshall, and then Acheson for the last four years. It was Dulles throughout the Eisenhower era, and McNamara for most of the Kennedy-Johnson years. Kissinger was the man for the Nixon-Ford period.

Whether one happened to like US policies during any of those times is not the point. Rather, the point is that we do not seem able to manage in our foreign relations without this kind of dominant figure, as was evident in the Carter administration when the pattern was broken, no single leading figure emerged, and disarray resulted for four years.

A jazz band is defined as harmonious improvisations around a few themes -- held together by a leader. It's much the same in US foreign/defense policy, but who will be the chief presidential aide serving as the leader now? No ideal candidates appear. Uncomfortable parallels are evident between early Carte r and early Reagan foreign/defense policy confusions.

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