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Iceland's weekend special

By JOHN HUGHES / October 10, 1986



THE summit-that-they-don't-want-to-call-a-summit is all set for this weekend, but everybody is intent on playing it down and warning we shouldn't expect too much. President Reagan calls it a base camp for the real summit that is supposed to take place later this year.

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Thus the happy idea is being spread abroad that lean teams from both sides will assemble in Reykjavik, there will be little pomp and fuss, and the two leaders will chat in an unpretentious white-shingled house with nobody else buzzing around except a friendly ghost who is supposed to drift in and out from time to time.

Icelanders, who talk up their country as a kind of Arctic lotus-land (if one can absorb the climatic contradiction), say they will survive the non-summit quite well -- especially those who have rented out their apartments to visiting journalists and gone off to Ibiza and the Greek islands.

Icelanders are indeed pretty laid back. They don't lock their doors, they close down television one night a week to give everybody a break, and the prime minister apparently takes the political temperature of the voters by swimming with them at the public pool most lunch hours.

We must check back with them after this weekend to see how they have survived the assault by lean teams of officials numbering more than a thousand, along with the steely-eyed Secret Service agents, and the planeloads of equipment, and the armored cars, and the White House communications gear.

Then there are a couple of thousand reporters with their miles of wiring, and portable satellite dishes, and crates full of supplies apparently necessary to their professional and personal well-being.

A few days in Iceland will not be enough to temper the professional aggressiveness of your average US reporter. The aggressiveness will be sharpened by plans to impose a news blackout on events until the conclusion of the meeting. This is rather like setting loose the Ringling Brothers circus lions for a couple of days downtown without any meat.

As for most of the officials, they will be in no less nervous a mood, for the meeting that is taking place is the bane of all bureaucrats' ambition -- a meeting without them.

The idea is that the two leaders should meet much of the time alone, or at least with a very small number of aides present. Those who get into these meetings generally hold the concept to be very good; the majority kept out think it disastrous.

A common misconception is that top bureaucrats in Washington spend most of their time on affairs of state and major political issues. Actually, most of them spend most of their time figuring out how to get into top meetings.

The generally held, and almost subversive, view is that no president -- not just this one, but any president -- should be allowed to go alone into a meeting with a foreign leader. ``He'll get it wrong.'' ``He'll agree to something without fully understanding the implications.'' ``He'll come out and there won't be any record of what they talked about.'' These are the oft-voiced bureaucratic concerns. The consolation is that somewhere in the Soviet bureaucracy there is even now somebody muttering (at least to himself): ``Let Gorbachev go in there alone to talk with Reagan about throw-weights and multiple warheads? That's crazy. He'll get it wrong. . . .''

For President Reagan, and probably for Mr. Gorbachev too, the bureaucrats will have prepared a mountainous pile of briefing books. These are the black, vinyl-covered books, stamped ``CLASSIFIED,'' which bureaucrats are sometimes seen clutching under their arms, and which are so titillating to distant reporters.

Ironically, the same bureaucrats who compile the voluminous briefing books give their principals higher marks for the infrequency with which they have to refer to them during the negotiating sessions. A principal who consults the book only rarely is seen to be master of the situation.

Reagan and Gorbachev belong to an elite club, what the commentators often call the ``two most powerful men in the world'' club. At the end of a long hard day in Reykjavik, the logs crackling in the fireplace, the frozen mountains silhouetted in the window of their simple meeting place, do they talk about ``how lonely it is at the top''?

Does Gorbachev tell Reagan what a rotten week he's had, what with the sinking of one of his submarines, and hard-liners in his retinue saying he's gone soft on capitalism?

Does Reagan say it hasn't been a great week for him either, what with the disinformation flap, and even Henry the K. sniping about the dangers of hasty summitry?

Well, we'll never know. They're in there by themselves without any bureaucrats taking notes.