Carter seems set to survive despite foreign-policy failures

In world affairs the ideas of March have not been kind to President Carter of the United States. His foreign policy projects for the year are languishing. And yet, paradoxically, this has not slowed his progress at home toward renomination for the presidency by his own Democratic Party. Foreign chanceries would be prudent to include in their calculations a high probability that they will be dealing with a Carter in the White House over the next five years.

Meanwhile, though, there are few, if any, rifts in the clouds of adversity hanging over the great projects which Mr. Carter launched or refurbished in January.

There is no grand coalition of nations gathering or formed to push the Soviets back out of Afghanistan. There isn't even any serious cooperation among the West European allies in a program of sanctions against the Soviets to punish them for that deed. Only one ally, Britain, shows much enthusiasm for a boycott of the Moscow summer Olympics. And the British Olympics Committee is pushing ahead toward Moscow in defiance of its government's position.

There is no new alliance of countries south of the Soviet Union, drawn together by the presumed danger of a further Soviet advance from Afghanistan into Pakistan or Iran. Mr. Carter's purpose was to form a southern tier of allies from Turkey to Pakistan, the whole to be supported by the United States.

But Pakistan seems so far to prefer quiet neutrality rather than US support. Turkey is pinning its hopes for aid as much to West Germany as to the United States. Washington has been unable to settle its differences with Iran. The hostages are still held at the US Embassy in Tehran.There is no sign yet of any effective rapprochement between Washington and Iraq, a step essential if there is to be an effective coalition of those countries lying between the Soviet Union and the Indian Ocean.

Israel is in open defiance of Mr. Carter's repeated efforts to dissuade it from settling Jews in the occupied territories or seizing more Arab land. On March 11 the Israeli Government announced expropriation of 1,000 acres of mainly Arab land in east Jerusalem. It was too much for Israel's Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, who opposed the order and protested publicly against it when announced. Washington also protested; but five days later (March 16) Israeli authorities fenced off another 375 acres of Arab land for a new Jewish settlement to be planted next door to Bethelehem.

The first anniversary of the signing of the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty comes up on March 26. Mr. Carter had hoped that by now there would be visible progress toward a comprehensive peace involving all of Israel's Arab neighbors. Such a development seems so far off that there is now talk among the West Europeans of making a fresh start toward a Middle East peace by convening a new conference to include the Soviet Union.

Saddest of all the foreign policy delays and non-successes for Mr. Carter is the continued holding of the 50 hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran. The attempt to coerce Iran by a policy of sanctions has long since been abandoned as being nonproductive or even counterproductive. But the alternative of waiting for the formation of a responsible government in Tehran has yet to produce concrete results. The new President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, is a moderate of presumed good intentions. But voting for the new Iranian parliament has not produced a solid majority which would support his policies. The hostages continue to languish in the custody of revolutionary militants.

In other words, President Carter, supposedly the leader of the free world, launched forth on great projects in January which by this time should have galvanized friends and allies into collective actions to deter and restrain Moscow, rescue Afghanistan, liberate the hostages, and advance the cause of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

Two months have shown more losses than gains. Moscow continues to consolidate its military conquest of Afghanistan. There is no tier of allies barring the road south. US relations with the countries of Islam remain largely unrepaired. Israel is in more flagrant defiance of US wishes than ever. The allies of West Europe are paying lip service only to the Carter programs. Mr. Carter is a world leader in name only. There is no following.

And yet this discouraging record of non-achievement in world affairs, accompanied by mounting inflation on the American home front, does not justify the reasonable conclusion that Mr. Carter will lose the next election. On the contrary. The shortfalls in both foreign and domestic policy have been accompanied by a steady progress toward renomination by his own party, with an excellent chance for re-election in November.

It is now time to notice a political phenomenon. The more problems multiply for Mr. Carter, the more times he stumbles and makes mistakes, the more his grand purposes languish -- the stronger his political position at home seems to become. In the March 18 primaries in Illinois Mr. Carter won out easily over his only serious rival in his own party, Sen. Edward Kennedy. The margin was 2 to 1. Governor Brown of California had sunk to a mere 2 percent of the vote.

Equally to Mr. Carter's advantage was the forward surge of Ronald Reagan in the Republican primary elections. Mr. Reagan is Mr. Carter's favorite Republican, the one he is most confident of being able to defeat in November. Once there were several impressive Republican contenders who might have been able to contest with Mr. Carter for the political middle ground. All have faded or withdrawn. Barring unforeseen and unforeseeable accidents between now and November, Mr. Carter will face Mr. Reagan in the final and decisive election.

How can it be that a President who appears to be so weak and so ineffective is moving politically from strength to strength?

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