Considering that Ronald Reagan is the only President we who live in the United States have right now and are likely to have for another three years the thing we all want most to know about him is how wise, tough, and politically effective he is going to be. His predecessor lacked in political effectiveness, which is the main reason Mr. Cartr was retired last year in favor of Mr. Reagan. Is Mr. Reagan more effective?
During the past few days he has had to face up to several decisions which have tested both his toughness and his astuteness. One was whether to go ahead with the proposal to sell AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. He faces formidable opposition on this. Israel is opposed. Israel's American supporters have been summoned to the fray and reportedly have already lined up 50 members of the US Senate against President Reagan.
If those reports are correct Mr. Reagan has a major battle on his hands in trying to overcome that opening count of the Senate. A weak President would run away from that one. Mr. Reagan was apparently decided to fight this one out even at the price of a bruising test of strength with the pro-Israel lobby.
The words he used in taking up his position on the AWACS issues are notable. He said: "It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy. An objective assessment of US national interest must favor the proposed sale."
That is the strongest argument which he could use in this affair. He is saying that Israel has no business trying to influence what Washington can or cannot sell to some other country. Any senator who votes against the sale is on notice that he can be accused of putting the interests of "other nations" ahead of American interests. Mr. Reagan may win in the final vote in the Senate on the AWACS sale on this argument. To take this position is being tough. Mr. Reagan was not wise to have got himself into this issue with Israel in the first place. But having got into it he must now face it our or lose credibility. He has elected to face it out.
Then there were the weapons problems which plagued Mr. Carter and were left on Mr. Reagan's doorstep. One was whether to pave with concrete vast areas of Utah and Nevada. Mr. Carter had been maneuvered by the Pentagon and its industrial supporters into agreeing to do just this in order to provide "racetracks" over which to shuttle 200 MX missiles among 4,600 holes in the ground, supposedly to fool the Soviets.
The idea was pure "dreamboat" for the highway construction industry. But it was anathema to most citizens of Utah and Nevada, to conservationists and environmentalists, and to the Mormon Church. Besides, among serious students of weaponry it was being argued that the Soviets could multiply anti-MX weapons faster and more cheaply than the Pentagon could get the holes dug and the highways between holes built.
Mr. Reagan handled that one by buying the argument that the racetrack system was a military loser. But he balanced that by deciding to build and deploy at least a hundred of the MX missiles. The first of these will be put into existing silos at present filled with Titan and older model Minuteman missiles. This pleases the contractors which include Martin Marietta, Rockwell International, General Electric, Honeywell, many subcontractors, and all the persons who will be employed in building them -- and their unions.
Also, he decided to revive the B-1 bomber which Mr. Carter had cancelled as well as going ahead with the Stealth bomber which is supposed to become the manned bomber of the future. The beneficiaries include Rockwell International, General Electric, Boeing, Eaton Corporation, scores of subcontractors, many thousands of workers to be hired, and their unions. The B-1 is said to be designed to provide contracts and employment in 48 states. It has political clout.
But the B-1 is alos hideously expensive. It may cost up to half a billion dollars per plane. And some critics claim that it is a waste of money to build this "intermediate" weapon when the Stealth bomber will come along to take its place. These two arguments carry weight in Congress which might conceivably refuse the funds to build the B-1. In that case Mr. Reagan could claim credit for proposing, and blame the Congress for failing to provide, the jobs said to be involved.
The racetrack system for the MX was widely considered to be the most expensive luxury on the Pentagon shopping list. It was politically astute to get rid of the racetracks but keep the weapon. It was politically prudent to keep the B-1 even if Congress kills it by refusing the funds.
It adds up to a new weapons programs which sounds like a lot more than Mr. Carter had planned, but in fact is little more, and could even be less, expensive if Congress kills the B-1. In politics appearances are all important.
Mr. Reagan showed toughness in the AWACS planes for Saudi Arabia. He has shown political astuteness in putting together his program for new weapons. The future results will provide us with a measure of his political effectiveness.