Reagan puts strategic offensive on hold

Taking a quick look back at where we were a year ago is an excellent way of finding out where we are today. Try the exercise . . . and you will notice that President Reagan has virtually reversed his foreign policy toward both Middle East and Central America, softened his attitude toward the Soviet Union, and come to terms with China.

In June a year ago he was pursuing a forward strategy in the first three areas and holding back on China.

In Central America he was moving American military forces to Honduras, in part to train and support the contras in Nicaragua. In the Middle East he was pushing for a reorganization of Lebanon favorable to Israel.

Toward Moscow his policy was stated to be ''based on military, economic, and political pressure from the West.'' Toward China he was still clinging to the fringe of the old ''two-China policy.'' This was unacceptable to the Chinese. It left a question mark over a scheduled exchange of visits between himself and China's premier.

The biggest change has been toward the Middle East. What was a forward strategy for Lebanon has turned into full withdrawal. The United States Marines have left. The great battleship New Jersey and the more useful (as it turned out) aircraft carriers no longer parade majestically back and forth off the Beirut shore spitting shells and bombs against Arabs who resisted Washington's plans for their country.

That is all over now. Today there is no American role at all in Beirut. President Amin Gemayel has come to terms there with Syria, has broken off the Israeli connection, and is trying to work out a new coalition of all elements in the Lebanese community. Mr. Reagan has become a passive observer instead of a major actor.

The reversal on Central America is not so complete. But the rising tide of American intervention of a year ago seems to be on the ebb. US Secretary of State George Shultz has visited Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The sequel was an American delegation meeting on Monday and Tuesday of this week with a Nicaraguan delegation in the neutral Mexican resort of Manzanillo. Mexico's foreign minister was present as host ''to give a cordial welcome'' to this first high-level, official, and planned peace conference between the US and Nicaragua.

As the diplomats were talking in Manzanillo, the US Senate agreed by 81 to 1 to drop all funds in the pending supplementary appropriations bill for supporting the counterrevolutionary emigre Forces (called contras) which have been fighting in Nicaragua.

The administration talks about reviving the request for funds for the contras. However, sentiment in Congress toward US backing for the rebel attacks on Nicaragua has cooled over the past year. It seems doubtful that when the full 1985 budget comes before the Congress it will include funds for the contras.

President Reagan is still trying to bolster and save the existing anticommunist government in El Salvador, and his prospects in that respect have improved of late. The new President of El Salvador, Jose Napoleon Duarte, made a good impression with Congress during a recent visit. His soldiers have scored recent successes against the Salvadorean rebels. Congress will continue to provide funds for the Duarte government in El Salvador.

But the American military presence in Central America is less visible and less assertive than it was at its peak during the Grenada intervention. American diplomacy seems to have taken over from the military some of the burden of American policy in the area.

Reagan policy toward the Soviet Union was stated officially by Secretary Shultz on June 15 a year ago.

He said, ''It is based on the expectation that, faced with the demonstration of the West's renewed determination to strengtheN its defenses, enhance its eConomic and political cohesion, and oppose adventurism, the Soviet Union will see restraint as its most attractive, or only, option.'' At that time, the White House in Washington was still trying to persuade the NATO allies to join in /Oal economic pressure on the Soviets. The allies refused to have any part in economic pressures. Nothing is heard around the White House anymore about economic cold wars. Today, that idea has had to be abandoned.

There is still a determined policy of containment of the Soviet Union. But firm containment is different from a forward strategy.

The Reagan foreign policy team came to Washington in 1981 preaching ''rollback,'' just as John Foster Dulles did in 1953. But Mr. Shultz is today practicing containment, not ''rollback,'' just as Mr. Dulles did during the entire Eisenhower administration. The China story has been the most subtle. Almost to the end of 1983 Mr. Reagan kept reverting to statements of affection for Taiwan. And every time he did, someone in Peking would remark that perhaps Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang might not be able to visit Washington after all. Mr. Reagan finally asserted unequivocally that the government in Peking ''is the sole legitimate government of China.'' The exchange of visits took place - much to Mr. Reagan's satisfaction.

It is a fair conclusion from the record that as the 1984 election has come closer President Reagan has put his strategic offensive on hold - for the time being.

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