Reagan unscathed by Beirut failure
How does he do it? President Reagan has sustained a clear foreign policy defeat in Lebanon. But he does not seem to have suffered a political setback and may in fact gain politically because of removal of the US marines from Beirut.Skip to next paragraph
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Diplomatic experts and others knowledgeable about the Middle East are disturbed by what they see as the administration's inept management of Middle East policy and the weaknesses of the President's handling of foreign policy in general. Yet the public appears to view the situation through a different lens. The President may well ''walk away'' from the Lebanon failure because:
* Most Americans want the marines out of Lebanon and don't blame Mr. Reagan for the Mideast mess.
* Reagan's optimism and self-confidence seem to meet a national psychological need.
* The Democrats have not offered any credible alternatives in the Middle East.
* The President is focusing on his domestic record, which still looms uppermost in the public mind.
Latest polls indicate that the Lebanese morass is not necessarily a political albatross for Reagan. The Gallup Organization finds that, since the marines' disengagement, the vast majority of Americans support the pullout but are divided on whether troops should remain offshore.
''There are potential problems for the President but only potential,'' Andrew Kohut, president of Gallup, told the Monitor. ''If Lebanon is seen as a massive disaster of foreign policy, this could cut into his image as an effective leader. But my guess is that people are not reading it as that. The Democrats are beginning to get a bit of focus on the subject, but it isn't yet clear that they can exploit it.''
A New York Times/CBS poll published this week shows more Americans now disapproving than approving of Reagan's foreign policy (47 percent against 39 percent). But two-thirds of those polled said the pullout decision was not a diplomatic failure, and, among those who said it was, less than half held the President responsible.
Much is being made in Washington of the confusion, contradictions, and misstatements that have swirled around the White House handling of the Lebanese crisis, casting doubts on presidential leadership. Yet political analysts note that the inner fumblings of the administration tend to concern the ''experts'' far more than the general public.
''Start with the fact that the public has a positive image of the President as a big, good-looking guy with a record of successes and taking vigorous action ,'' says Austin Ranney, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute.
''In the case of Lebanon, no one had a clear idea of why we were there, and the concern of the mass public - not the elite - was that we were taking casualties. A lot of things, like who's in charge at the White House, concern the elites, but the image that sticks with the mass public are the budget triumph in 1981, Grenada, and other things that make Reagan look like a strong leader.''
Even liberal political observers note that the President seems to fulfill Americans' need for a perception of decisive leadership.
''Reagan strikes a tone of optimism and hope and says what people want to hear,'' says presidential scholar Stephen Wayne of George Washington University. ''Though he is vulnerable on leadership - on whether he himself is making the decisions, for instance - he is not tainted, because he's regarded as a decent man, because people don't want another failed presidency, and because he seems to know what he wants, and that's reassuring after the Carter years. So he escapes what would bring down other presidents.''