From all over the world during this past week diplomats turned toward Washington to see whether Ronald Reagan recognizes the troubles he is in both at home and abroad and whether he will then be able to take the steps necessary to regain control over events.
At home his economic program was in deepest trouble. Confidence in it could apparently be revived only by further budget-cutting, which would have to be at the expense either of social security beneficiaries or of the military budget.
The first would offend the middle classes who voted heavily for him last year. The second would offend the military-industrial establishment, which contributed money generously to his election campaign. Does he have the political strength to offend either one" If not, what then happens to the dollar and to the high prospects of last spring for American economic recovery and an end to the inflation?
In foreign affairs, his policies to date have left him out of step with friends and allies and with those most important to his plan for building a "strategic consensus" in the Middle East to keep Soviet hands out of the oilfields of that region.
His general problem was typified by the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin lobbying against a generous program of American arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest exporter of oil and the biggest single shipper of oil to the United States, to Western Europe, and to Japan. Saudi goodwill is important to the entire trading world of the industrial democracies. The Saudis have been promised the American arms.
The eyes of the world are watching to see whether the American President settles the issue in favor of Mr. Begin, who has no other source than the United States for arms and aid, or in favor of the Saudis, who can get arms and aid almost anywhere. The West Europeans would be delighted to have the business. So, too, would the Soviet Union.
When Mr. Reagan took office in January, Moscow was the pariah of the world for what it was doing in Afghanistan and might do at any moment to Poland. The focus of attention was on Moscow's past, present, and prospective misdeeds.
Since Mr. Reagan took office, the focus has shifted away from Soviet brutality in Afghanistan.Mr. Reagan lost the role of champion of the Afghans by lifting the embargo on grain to the Soviet Union. He let the spolight move elsewhere.
It has moved to the Middle East, where the Israelis apparently assumed from Reagan administration words and postures that it was possible to get away with bombing Beirut and Baghdad and stepping up their creeping annexation of the West Bank of the Jordan -- at the expense of the Arabs.
It has moved to southern Africa, where the White South Africans have stepped up their military operations in black Angola and hardened their policies toward the blacks inside their own country. The Reagan White House in Washington argues that it can win more concessions from White South Africa by kindness than by pressure. But so far this change of attitude has seemed to encourage the whiles to an extension of their military frontiers.
It has moved to Central America, where the old oligarchies think that they have the apporval of Washington for attempting to regain economic and political positions lost during the Carter years of emphasis on civil rights and liberties.
In all three areas -- Middle East, southern Africa, and Central America -- the Reagan tilt has tended to separate the United States from the general trend of world and alliance opinion. An overwhelming majority of the nations sympathize with the Arabs in the Middle East, with the blacks in southern Africa , and with the peons rather than with the oligarchs of Central America.
Who are the most oppressed and exploited people in the world?Opinions differ. Standards vary. But most would agree to put high on the list these very peoples -- as well as those of the Soviet empire.
Great powers are judged by their attitudes toward the oppressed and underprivileged. Rightly or wrongly, the Soviet Union's role in the eyes of the world has improved since Mr. Reagan took office; the American role has declined. The Soviets gained partly by not (as yet) doing to Poland what they did to the Czechs, Hungarians, and Afghans.
The Soviets have gained partly also because Washington has let the spotlight shift away from Afghanistan to other places where Reagan policies have seemed to move the weight of US influence from the side of the less privileged to the side of the oppressors.
Is world opinion misjudging Reagan foreign policies?
The Begin visit in Washington is all the more important as a possible indication of real, as distinct from apparent, direction. Does Mr. Reagan truly intend to provide the guns and money with which Israel will expand its territory to include all of the presently occupied territories and perhaps even more? Or will Mr. Reagan recognize now, before it is too late, that he cannot give Mr. Begin what Mr. Begin wants and also have the friendship and cooperation of the Arab community?
During spring and early summer the outside world was delighted at the progress Mr. Reagan in Washington seemed to be making in handling his domestic economic problems. He seemed to be a man of action and decisiveness. He seemed to be a winner.
Now, doubts have risen. The success of his economic policies and the wisdom of his foreign policies are in question. Is he going to be a superior statesman and successful president, or just another man of good intentions?
Right now the questions are easy. The answers will have to come later.