Washington — Conservatives appear to be making a last-ditch effort to win the heart and soul of Ronald Reagan. As the 1986 election approaches, right-wing supporters are hailing the President's supposed hardening of national-security policy after five years in office. By supporting ``freedom fighters'' around the world, moving toughly against Libya, and holding firm on his antimissile defense program, they say, Mr. Reagan is finally pursuing the agenda he stood for in 1980.
``Four years ago the rallying cry of the President's most dedicated supporters was `Let Reagan be Reagan,' '' say observers at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. ``Now, at long last, Reagan is Reagan, and American policy is immeasurably better for it.''
But many foreign-policy experts say they think the conservatives are whistling in the dark. Reagan is more assertive on the diplomatic front these days, the experts agree. But he is walking a delicate line, throwing the right wing of his party rhetorical flourishes but exercising his customary caution and pragmatism in the conduct of foreign policy.
``Despite what they say, the conservatives have not fully captured [Reagan],'' says John Steinbruner, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. ``He's trying to give them as much rhetorical assurance as he can get away with, without disturbing basic political opinion too much.''
Political analysts suggest that conservative ideologues are making a push to consolidate as many gains as they can before next year. Some observers predict that after the fall election, the Democrats will be stronger in both houses of Congress, and that the President will be increasingly less influential as lawmakers look to their own political interests in 1988.
Besides support for the Nicaraguan rebels and the attack on Libya, militant conservatives cheer other recent moves by the Reagan administration. These include the President's meeting with Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi; a decision to send Stinger antiaircraft missiles to insurgents in Afghanistan and Angola; the order to Moscow to reduce its UN mission; and a stern line on Soviet arms proposals.
``All this adds up to a new, positive policy of containing, confronting, and ultimately reversing the tide of Soviet imperialism on a global scale,'' says the National Security Record, the Heritage Foundation's monthly newsletter.
Diplomatic experts, however, say Reagan is very selective in picking the areas of US assertiveness. He views foreign policy in a domestic context, possessing an instinctive understanding of what the American people want, or will tolerate. He has not moved dangerously anywhere, and when he has become bogged down -- as with the US marines in Lebanon -- he has cut his losses and run.
The US bombing of Libya, analysts say, showed a willingness to use military force, but it was used only against a target that posed no risk for the US.
Since the Libyan operation, diplomatic observers note, the President has been careful not to take on Syria, which also is reportedly involved in terrorist activity but is a more formidable military force and is more closely allied with Moscow.
``Americans don't want to fight,'' says Robert Hunter, a specialist at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``After Vietnam [US foreign policy] goals have to be clear, and the methods have to be straightforward, relatively easy and quick.''
In Central America, too, Reagan has raised the rhetorical level and hardened his policy of support for the Nicaraguan ``contras.'' But he insists he will not send American forces to the area, a move the vast majority of Americans oppose.
``Getting support to the people fighting Soviet-backed regimes has been [US policy] for a long time,'' says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former aide to Henry A. Kissinger. ``There has been some change [under Reagan] in material support but not in huge quantities. . . . In terms of direct action, there has been no great guilt complex when action was deemed necessary, but when it occurs, it has been done with caution and limitations.''
On arms control, the President has pleased right-wing conservatives by holding firm on his Strategic Defense Initiative and rejecting various Soviet proposals, including a moratorium on nuclear testing. But in the absence of progress on arms control, Reagan is complying with the unratified SALT II treaty.
In the view of many experts, the Reagan foreign policy is passive and reactive rather than assertive and creative.
``It's essentialy a right-of-center policy and mostly reactive,'' says former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. ``In the Middle East, policy is stalemated and even the Israelis are begging us to take an initiative.''