Sept. 21 goes down as a milestone on the journey of the Reagan administration. On that day of the Republican leaders in Congress got together and agreed among themselves to tell the President that they could not go along with him on his latest formula for cutting federal spending and for keeping his economic program headed toward a balanced budget by 1984.
He had proposed to do just that by further trimming of welfare programs and by delaying cost-of-living increases in social security payments.
In brief and blunt words they told the White House that it would be impossible to push through Congress more cuts at the expense of pensioners and of the lower economic layers of the American community.
This was not a mutiny among the Republicans in Congress. It was a recognition of political reality. It was a decision which reflected the basic relief that the Republican tide which Mr. Reagan rode to victory last year would start ebbing decisively if there are any more cuts in federal benefits to pensioners and to the less-privileged.
Even some Republicans (particularly those from the more populous states and the big cities) are saying that if there are to be more cuts in the federal budget they should come from the defense appropriations, not from people.
And that brings us straight to Mr. Reagan's great dilemma. He campaigned on the double proposition that the Soviet Union needs to be contained, and can only be contained by large increases in the United States military arsenal and in the US military posture.
Not many people would question the first part of that proposition. The Soviet Union expands its position in the world whenever it thinks it needs to for its own welfare, and wherever it thinks that it can make a gain without paying an exorbitant price.It tends to fill any available power vacuum.
The rest of the world would be uncomfortable if Soviet influence were to range beyond its present limits. Containment of Soviet power is the major purpose of the diplomacy of the US and of its friends and allies. It is the common language which has even bridged the ideological gap between Washington and Peking. It is the very raison d'etre of the NATO alliance.
But the second part of the proposition is another matter. Does containment require a massive increase in US military power at this moment in history? Most diplomats and foreign policy experts seem to agree that it would be unwise to allow any further decline in relative. American military power and that some repair and refurbishing of US armed forces is desirable.
But does this mean the kind of massive increase which the President proposed?
There is no unanimity among the experts on that point. Some even think that the present proposals would actually weaken the containment machinery of the West because, first, it would be a dangerous drain on the US economy (upon which Western strength is founded) and, second, it sounds like provocative "overkill" in the ears of anxious allies. Too much American rearmament tends to frighten the allies.
Where would a prudent line be drawn between "too little" and "too much"?
"Too little" can be defined as a level of US military strength so low that the Soviets would think they could expand at will and without fear of serious opposition. At some point of American weakness they might even feel free to push for control over all of Western Europe and to attrack China. What is wanted is sufficiency, but not overkill. Among diplomatic experts sufficiency can best be defined as that level of American arms which, when combined with the powers of Western Europe, China, and Japan, does in fact, restrain, deter, and contain the range of Soviet power.
Sufficiency would also rely on other means of containment than raw American military power. The tendency is to overestimate the usefulness of weapons and armed forces.US military power was vastly superior to Soviet power when the Soviets invaded Hungary and still superior although by a narrower margin when they invaded Czechoslovakia. American power today is less superior, indeed in same respects inferior, but the Soviets have not yet (at this writing) invaded Poland. They are restrained by the damage it would do to their present propaganda "peace offensive," not by American arms.
President Reagan will be unable logically to cut his defense program enough to salvage his economic program so long as he acts on the assumption that superior US military power is vital to the containment of the Soviet Union. But if he would go over to a doctrine of "sufficiency" he could probably trim his defense budget by enough to keep afloat the idea of a balanced federal budget by 1984.