PERHAPS the most devastating critique of Jimmy Carter's approach to national security issues was delivered some years ago by a former Carter speech writer, James Fallows. In preparation for a Naval Academy address on United States-Soviet relations, Mr. Fallows wrote, the President received a ``hard line'' draft from national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and a ``soft line'' draft from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Unable or unwilling to choose between them, Mr. Carter, in effect, scissored them in half, stapled the two versions together, and delivered both. That Gov. Michael Dukakis is doing much the same thing with his campaign approach to national security questions was made obvious by his recent remarks about the Strategic Defense Initiative to the American Legion. Previously he had opposed the system as ``a fantasy.'' Now he claimed he would support ``star wars'' research at about $1 billion per year - roughly one-fourth of current levels. Regarding deployment, Governor Dukakis said, ``If I made a judgment and Congress made a judgment that it was essential to our national security, then obviously we would proceed.''
The Dukakis ``compromise'' position is one that a mature strategic thinker conversant with the subject would never have advanced. At $1 billion a year we couldn't orbit a Tinkertoy, let alone a vastly complex system designed to stop Soviet missiles in their boost phase. And without testing such a system, a step Mr. Dukakis opposes as violative of the AntiBallistic Missile Treaty, there would be nothing that could be deployed with confidence.
And what is it that Dukakis would deploy in any event? A kinetic system which an overwhelming scientific consensus believes could easily be defeated by Soviet weapons? A laser system whose feasibility is years if not decades away from being proved?
At Georgetown University some days later Dukakis - rather than articulating coherent national security views - simply appeared to endorse every major weapons system he had not, in previous statements, specifically opposed.
One suspects two reasons for the Dukakis difficulty. The first is simply his own lack of experience in the area. Reason 2 is what is widely heralded as the invincible Reagan-Bush record on such matters. After all, it is argued, superpower relations have never been better, the United States has achieved peace through strength, and a host of regional conflicts - Afghanistan, the Gulf, Angola, Cambodia - seem headed for resolution.
But the Reagan-Bush record is a good deal less imposing than first appearances suggest and, in any event, a public review of several questions is long past due.
Taking nothing away from the combination of commitment, patience, strength, and restraint which has helped produce the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Afghanistan pullout, and a number of other successes, there would appear to be at least four areas where administration performance has been less impressive:
Arms control. We forget that the principal importance of the INF Treaty is symbolic and that without a follow-on START agreement it is militarily inconsequential. START is deadlocked by the President's commitment to SDI and US insistence that nuclear-armed cruise missiles remain uncovered because they are ``impossible'' to verify, while mobile missiles be banned altogether for precisely the same reason. Moreover, the administration has lost precious political support for its deep-cuts approach, because many fear it has not moved to design a nuclear force structure that is both survivable and compatible with the proposed limits.
The Pentagon budget. The spending binge of the early Reagan-Bush period has left the Pentagon with a host of programs that cannot be properly maintained and supported, as well as systems coming on stream which cannot move from research and development to production, given current budgetary restraints. Already weapons purchases are being stretched out beyond efficient buying rates and systems running to tens of billions of dollars, such as the Stealth bomber, are approaching production even before their predecessors, like the B-1, are fully deployed. Suggest the need for hard choices and Vice-President George Bush will talk about a ``flexible freeze'' ... voodoo defense management at its worst.
Central America. This is an area where the Reagan-Bush policies have cost billions of dollars, distorted the political processes of our own country, and produced horrendous results on the ground. With the leader of China - the world's largest communist power - now benevolently endorsing the Bush candidacy and the leader of the second-largest - the Soviet Union - transforming both the internal and external policies of his own nation, one wonders why American dealings with the tiny and feeble Marxist states to the south must still be predicated on the jaundiced view of a worldwide communist monolith.
The Middle East. Secretary of State George Shultz's well-intentioned but tepid approach to this region wasted the opportunity provided by the Arafat-Hussein accord and the Israeli prime ministership of Shimon Peres and has more recently been victimized by the administration's halting and inconsistent response to the Palestinian intifadah of the past nine months. One senses historic opportunities for peace at hand and listens in vain for the sort of formulations that could serve as the basis for enlightened American policies in the post-election period. Instead one hears tired commitments for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and crass appeals for the Jewish vote which many a thoughtful Jew by now finds repugnant.
By mentioning four particular areas, one should not by implication exclude others. A new era is dawning for Japan. The circumstances that shaped the Atlantic alliance have changed in fundamental ways. There may well be ways to dismantle the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe without posing an unacceptable threat to Soviet security. On these questions, too, the Reagan record is neither so formidable nor its positions so clear as to preempt political opposition, if indeed there were more credible political opposition in this area.
C. Robert Zelnick is Pentagon correspondent for ABC news.