US: Soviet hand in Poland's turmoil
Five days after Polish leaders moved militarily to quash a threatened national strike, President Reagan has now laid full fault on the shoulders of the Soviet leaders.Skip to next paragraph
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He declined, however, to outline American steps either to aid the Polish people, or to restrain Polish leaders or their Soviet backers.
At a Dec. 17 White House press conference, the President said: ''Coercion and violation of human rights on a massive scale have taken the place of negotiation and compromise (in Poland). . . . It would be naive to think this could happen without the full knowledge and the support of the Soviet Union. We are not naive.''
The President apparently still feels caught between growing, impatient clamor from his own party's right to show sufficient outrage against the Soviets, and the realistic assessment of his advisers that the US has few good options to play in the crisis.
A cutoff of food shipments to Poland, one option the President refused to discuss, would harm the people the US most wants to help in Poland, his advisers say. To announce no financial aid to the Poles next year by the US and its allies would risk deeper economic crisis and possibly provoke the Soviet intervention that most concerns the administration.
The White House's apparent decision is to let the Polish crisis simmer until a higher threshold of resistance or violence is reached.
Failing action, the larger domestic risk for the President is that he, like President Carter before him, might seem to lack sufficient clout abroad. At home , however, the Polish crisis could strengthen his hand in Congress when he tries to protect military spending in the fiscal '83 round of budget cuts.
Even before the President's comments, the Reagan administration was already beginning to place the responsibility for what is happening in Poland squarely on the Soviets.
Administration officials are also admitting that they were surprised by the crackdown on Poland's free labor movement - and slow to react to it.
But American officials are now publicly warning that there is a line which Poland's martial law regime could not cross without serious consequences for US relations with Poland and with the Soviet Union.
Administration officials are increasingly worried that the aim of the Polish crackdown is the complete suppression of the Solidarity labor movement. They profess to see Soviet complicity in this, and some officials are coming to the view that if the Polish authorities decide to use weapons against unarmed Polish civilians, it will make little difference whether Polish or Soviet troops pull the trigger. The administration is now warning not just of grave consequences should Soviet troops intervene directly in Poland, but also of grave consequences should Polish troops and other security forces engage in the violent suppression of Solidarity even without the direct aid of Soviet troops.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters on Dec. 17, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard N. Perle indicated that if the level of violence perpetrated by Poland's martial law authorities crossed a certain line - a line which he did not clearly define - it could disrupt US trade relations and nuclear arms limitation talks with the Soviets. Mr. Perle also said there was talk of cutting off the flow of high technology to the Soviet Union, something which he himself favors regardless of what happens in Poland.
Asked about the possibility of coordinated strategy among the NATO allies should the Polish crackdown continue without direct Soviet involvement, Perle indicated that NATO contingency planning had been aimed largely at the possibility of Soviet involvement. He left the impression that the US might have to act on its own should the Polish crackdown continue without the aid of Soviet troops. But he predicted that people in West European countries might react with an outpouring of sympathy for Solidarity which could surprise their governments.
America's NATO allies, said Perle, have ''not been enthusiastic about stern measures'' with regard to Poland.
Perle suggested that the US was slow to react forcefully to the Polish crackdown in the initial stages because it was surprised by the crackdown, because its information about the crackdown has continued to be incomplete, and because it was, at the outset at least, heavily focused on the idea of deterring direct Soviet intervention.
''In our concern to deter direct Soviet involvement, we did not give sufficient attention to . . . the internal effort'' to crack down, said Perle.
''We weren't asking the right questions,'' he said.
The Defense Department official said that the events in Poland had revealed a weakness in American intelligence gathering.
''I believe that we make overly optimistic assumptions,'' he said. ''In any of these situations, we tend to evaluate in terms of some preconceptions. . . . All intelligence organizations suffer from this,'' he said, pointing out that Israeli intelligence officers, despite their high reputation, failed to foresee the 1973 attack by Egypt.
Perle asserted that ''almost every major crisis in recent years'' had come as ''a complete surprise'' to American intelligence.
In indicating that the US will take strong, but nonmilitary action in case the Polish crackdown results in bloodshed or the destruction of Solidarity, officials are acting on the basis of international conventions regarding human rights and liberties such as the Helsinki accords.