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Why a diplomat is disappointed in Reagan

By Malcolm Toonent, let's get on with the job.Malcolm Toon has served as US ambasador in Czechoslovakia, Israel, Yugoslavia, and, most recently, the USSR. / October 23, 1981



If I were asked to rate President Reagan's foreign policy and national security performance on a scale of 1 to 10, I'm afraid I could give him no more than a high 3. This may seem to some an unduly harsh judgment, particularly in view of: first, that the mindless attack on the President's life slowed his performance at the very outset of his term; and, second, that when finally on his feet the President understandably assigned top priority to his economic program.

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Admittedly, my judgment is subjective: almost my entire adult work experience has been in foreign affairs; and I voted for Reagan not because of his dedication to supply-side economics - which, in fact, causes me a good deal of unease - but because he seemed to offer a sensible and badly needed alternative to the flabby, fatuous approach of the Carter administration to the threat to world peace and stability posed by the dangerously aggressive policies and behavior of the Soviet Union. I feel the Reagan administration has not lived up to its promises, and certainly my expectations. I would fault the President on the following counts:

(1) We continue to confuse friend and foe alike by speaking on vital foreign policy issues in conflicting voices - one of the worst faults of the Carter administration. The early feud between Weinberger and Haig on the neutron bomb, the differences of Lehman and Haig over arms control negotiation, the alarmist statement by a National Security Council staffer on long-term strategy in dealing with the Soviet Union which was subsequently characterized as a subjective view - are just a few examples of the troublesome dichotomy of official views which has plagued the administration in recent months.

(2) We continue to place politics above policy. The grain embargo was lifted at a time when there was no evidence of improved Soviet behavior or lessened tension in world hotspots that could justify such a move. And that decision is seen by our friends and allies as a proof of our inconstancy and will make it difficult, if not impossible, to agree on concerted political and economic sanctions against the Soviet Union in the event of future brutal moves by the Soviets - for example, against the Poles.

The President's decision on the MX basing mode seems, at least in part, inspired by domestic political considerations and, while the plan does little, and perhaps nothing, to offset the vulnerability of our land-based missile system, its principal weakness from a foreign policy point of view is that it will, on the one hand, strengthen the cause of those in Europe who are determined to prevent the buildup of our theater nuclear forces as an offset to the Soviet SS-20 and the the improved SS-4s and -5s and, on the other hand, be exploited by the Soviets as support for their claims that we are building a first-strike capability.

(3) We fail to see clearly the complications that lie ahead of policy moves and the disastrous consequences that will inevitably ensue if those moves fail. The AWACS mess is a clear case in point. The most junior of foreign service officers could have foreseen the sharp Israeli reaction - always translatable into congressional concern - to the first-time arming of an Arab state (and one with views antipathetical to Israeli concerns) with a weapons system of higher sophistication than any in the Israeli arsenal. I frankly don't know how or on whom to assess the blame for this lack of prescience; I would say simply that what we probably need, and need desperately, is a Kissinger - that is, someone in authority who can see beyond tomorrow at lunch - somewhere in the administration's entourage.