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President Reagan's historic choice

By Robert J. Pranger / November 15, 1985



IN the final hours of preparation for his summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, President Reagan must consult no longer his nuclear arms advisers, who remain divided in their counsel. He must think instead of his illustrious predecessors in the presidency. This is a moment for presidential, not bureaucratic, decisions in foreign policy. Few American presidents have had the creative opportunity now present for Mr. Reagan. This opportunity centers on a drastic cut in nuclear arsenals beyond even the most utopian vision of any president in the postwar era.

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Perhaps the only parallel in American history to the choice that President Reagan now faces, a choice if made that could move the world into a new, indeterminate future, was Abraham Lincoln's decision to enter the bloodiest war in our history in order to save the Union. Lincoln could not remain Hamlet in the face of a nation ``half slave and half free'' without risking even greater catastrophe than the war his adamant policy helped precipitate, and yet his choice threw the still fledgling nation into vi olence. Would an unsuccessful outcome for the Union have condemned Lincoln in history's eyes? We know only one thing; his choice was not entirely free of irony, as no great historical decisions can be. The risk of final rupture of North and South was taken to heal the division once and for all.

President Reagan's choice whether to move toward radical reduction of nuclear arsenals will not be any less risky or ironic than Lincoln's, but this is precisely the enormous dilemma that distinguishes great statesmanship from mere presidencies. A decision on Reagan's part to enter deep-cut agreements with the Soviet Union at this time early in Gorbachev's career would vindicate the faith some still have in the creative and even redemptive possibilities of politics -- a victory of personal, presidential

choice over a system that threatens to prevent it.

The irony of a decision by President Reagan to go forward with deep cuts in nuclear arsenals is that this momentous choice would be at the price of another dream, that of his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). His famous ``star wars'' speech in March 1983 sketched an imaginative vision of a world without nuclear weapons guarded by nonnuclear defenses in space. No doubt this almost prophetic view of modern arms has helped lead the world to the present stage where the President must now make a choice bet ween a long-sought hope of mankind that warfare will become obsolete through impregnable defense and an equally cherished goal of eliminating arms through mutual disarmament. Reagan's choice is made ironic because nuclear disarmament has come nearer, in part, because he has proposed SDI; but now he must accept controls on SDI to achieve disarmament.

Choices such as Reagan's on the eve of his Geneva meeting with Gorbachev present themselves only a few times in any century. In this case they are possible largely because of President Reagan's enormous power and remarkable popularity. The significant decisions on trade-offs between offensive and defensive strategic arms are his alone to ponder.

At a critical point on the eve of Geneva, Reagan must transcend his political appointees, some of whom, in this powerful presidency, should be counted as little more than ingenious provocateurs. He must ignore the pleadings of certain columnists and party regulars, often with close ties to factional, byzantine struggles around the President. He must look to only a few models in the history of the presidency where agonizing choices have been made without full and predictable knowledge about outcomes.

Reagan's final decision on whether to move with the Soviets on deep cuts in offensive arms and whether to accept broad restraints on SDI will be momentous in the history of the American presidency. Either way -- for something positive at Geneva in arms control or not -- our future will open in new directions.

Efforts to minimize the importance of Geneva have been mounted throughout the administration, including the Oval Office itself, and this is regrettable. Once past, Geneva 1985 will be seen as a milestone from which unexplored terrain will open for good or evil. Now is the time for quiet presidential choice, keeping his own counsel up to the actual meetings with Gorbachev and remembering above all the most exemplary of his predecessors in the White House.

Robert J. Pranger is vice-president for external affairs at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington.