WHATEVER happened to Ronald Reagan? That is the puzzling question in light of his current foreign policy problems.
His success with the American people - dazzling until recently - has been built on his personal good nature and straightforwardness, and on policies that have refurbished the United States image with strength and confidence.
Yet in two major foreign policy confrontations lately - the Reykjavik summit and the arms deal with Iran - we have seen a very uncharacteristic Ronald Reagan.
In Reykjavik, Mr. Reagan seemed to drop his guard and his traditional caution when dealing with the Soviets. He engaged in what seemed like a freewheeling poker game with Mikhail Gorbachev over nuclear arms, tossing in missiles and throw-weights and warheads like chips in an all-night contest.
Fortunately, Reagan stood firm on his Strategic Defense Initiative, the ultimate chip that may make an arms control agreement possible. The United States came away from Reykjavik without losing its shirt, and able to consider quietly just how far it can go down the road to the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, in his dealings with Iran, Reagan similarly forsook his position of strength, this time on terrorism. Whether or not he believed he was trading arms for hostages, the perception of most Americans is that he was. They think their President made a major mistake.
What caused Reagan to behave so uncharacteristically, wheeling and dealing with the Soviets he has so long distrusted, and with the Iranians he has so long abhorred?
Is it that itch that afflicts some Presidents in their final months in office to engrave in the history books a glowing record of achievement?
Was Reagan so anxious to get an arms control agreement, and to get US hostages freed, that he abandoned his traditional caution and position of strength in favor of impulsive and shortsighted initiatives?
If so, who influenced him to take these uncharacteristic steps?
Who among his staff stood up and warned of the pitfalls?
Was there nobody, for example, on Iran, who said to him: ``Mr. President, your secret trading with Iran will eventually become public, not only because our own government is unable to keep secrets, but because the Iranians will make it public. The American people will oppose this. The damage to you and the country will be immense.''
Inferior staff work cannot alone be the answer. Reagan, everybody writes, is not a master of detail. But time and time again he has proved himself a master of intelligent intuition.
What happened to that intuition when former national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane led him to the political precipice of shipping weapons to Iran?
What happened to that intuition after the operation was exposed, when the President had the opportunity to say he had made a mistake, but instead went out and told a disagreeing American public that he believed in the correctness of his decision?
This uncharacteristic fumbling of judgment has brought Reagan to the greatest challenge of his presidency.
Ronald Reagan is a survivor and he will undoubtedly survive this challenge, too. We are not going to see him leaving office early, waving a sad farewell from the steps of the presidential helicopter on the White House lawn as it prepares to whisk him into retirement.
The real question revolves around the manner in which he survives.
A caretaker leader, presiding over a listless foreign policy for the next two years, is in nobody's interest.
What is needed is a President healed of his recent political wounds, and a foreign policy restored to vigor and integrity.
Will the real Ronald Reagan please stand up?