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Political dynamics behind Reagan's defense speeches

By Richard J. CattaniStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1983



Washington

President Reagan has embarked this spring on a series of arms speeches and defense initiatives, but he has yet to weld them into a ''grand strategy.'' This is the view of arms and defense experts who are veterans of Republican administrations, including advisers to the Reagan defense effort.

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The President, they say, is largely reacting to separate stimuli, among them:

* The need to shore up political support on the conservative right. This support brought him to office, and he will need it again if he runs in 1984.

* Foundering support for his defense budget in Congress.

* Pressure for a nuclear freeze at home.

* Ferment in Western Europe for an interim nuclear arms agreement with the Soviets.

* The need to build a case for a basing plan in the US for the new MX missiles.

Add to this the President's inclination, at times, to depict US-Soviet relations in highly moralistic terms - calling Soviet ideology the ''focus of evil,'' for instance - and it is no wonder the public, America's allies, and even the experts are hard put to grasp the overall pattern of Reagan arms policy , the experts say.

Reagan at times gets personally involved in phases of arms strategy decisions that catch his fancy, aides say. He is said to have seized, for Wednesday night's speech, on the idea of a futuristic ''defensive'' arms era.

Here are the main Reagan positions on arms control and defense:

* In Orlando, Fla., on March 8, Reagan denounced Soviet ideology as evil, rejected the nuclear freeze movement as a fraud, and insisted in hawkish tones on ''peace through strength.'' Reagan's immediate audience was the National Association of Evangelicals, but he was also seeking to stem the impact of Catholic bishops and, politically, firm up his base among the nation's conservatives.

* Reagan's Wednesday address underscored the Soviets' military buildup and their encroachment into this hemisphere. It was intended to help revive Senate backing for his defense spending plans, both in the GOP-controlled upper chamber and in negotiations with the House, which this week passed its own budget.

* Next Thursday in Los Angeles, President Reagan is expected to talk about a possible interim agreement for talks on reducing intermediate-range nuclear arms in Europe. American allies in Europe, as well as moderates on Capitol Hill, contend the Soviets are not going to go for Reagan's so-called ''zero-option'' proposal. They want some immediate promise of progress. Those who oppose an interim pact argue it will in effect become the new ''bottom line'' for the US, forestalling any later movement toward Reagan's zero-option position.

* The second week of April, Reagan will likely respond to the recommendations of his commission on MX missile deployment. Congress last year rejected a dense-pack basing scheme. Rather than risk defeat on the MX, Reagan withdrew his own proposal and appointed a bipartisan panel to study the MX further. The group's recommendation is expected shortly.

Both hard-line and moderate arms analysts find disquieting questions arising as Reagan moves through this series of public explanations of policy.

A conservative Reagan arms adviser points out that in speeches such as his Orlando talk, the public was given ''a genuine insight'' into the President's thinking and that of the people around him.

''These speeches seem to be confrontationist, rather than conciliatory,'' says a moderate defense analyst. ''There is already some disquiet about the Reagan administration's defense and arms policies. But the speeches raise more questions. As a result, he's losing consensus - both at home and among the allies - not building consensus.''

''The only common denominator is Reagan's feeling of urgency that he has to get his separate message across - that he must convey the truth as he sees it,'' says another GOP arms adviser. ''These (arms speeches) have the mark of things that spring from the heart, and not the result of an orchestrated policy development.''