'The dismay about America'

A couple of editorial columns appeared in prestigious journals on the same day last week with oddly different messages. Each attacked President Carter's foreign policy and its effect on our allies. But while one accused him of pushing the allies too far, the other blamed him for not pushing them far enough.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal from London the distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. -- an ardent supporter of Edward Kennedy -- reported a sorry state of affairs, at least as he saw it. "The dismay about America," he wrote from England, "not only about its ability to lead but about its ability to cope, seems greater than at any point I can remember."

Mr. Schlesinger quoted politicians and periodicals to support his own view that the President is making too much of sanctions against Iran and Russia. Here is the London Times saying that sanctions against Iran are "much the most likely way of spreading and strengthening Soviet power." Here is the London Economist sighing that "one can now believe practically anything of America's present un-government." He ended this scrapbook of laments with his own fierce condemnation of the administration: its "irremediable incompetence" and its "incorrigible bungling."

In short, Mr. Schlesinger seems to have found in London grim corroboration of the views he set out with. What to do about it?He urges fellow Democrats to throw their national convention wide open, as proposed by Gov. Hugh Carey of New York and, irrespective of the candidates to whom they are supposed to be pledged in the interminable primaries, to act like a deliberate assembly, the better, presumably, to discard President Carter as head of the ticket and nominate Senator Kennedy.

It is not my purpose to argue this thesis here but rather to note a coincidence. On the same day that these arguments appeared at one end of town, an equally ardent critic of Mr. Carter attacked him at the other, also on foreign affairs, but for not having pushed allies on sanctions far enough. In the New York Times William Safire, a former speech writer for Mr. Nixon, charged the President with weakly temporizing. "Our allies whisper that President Carter's zigzagging has caused them to reject US leadership in world affairs," wrote Mr. Safire contemptuously. Mr. Safire denounces Mr. Carter for not doing harder what Mr. Schlesinger blames him for doing at all.

Let Mr. Safire speak for himself. He charges that "the Carter men are . . . whimpering to our allies for help in annoying the Iranian terrorists." What would he do to reluctant allies? He would shake his fist at them. First he would "declare economic warfare" on Iran. Then he would "rescind the Helsinki Accords" (the agreements with Russia designed to continue detente by guaranteeing Soviet borders). And finally the determined Mr. Safire would teach hesitant allies a lesson by starting to bring back the 300,000 American troops sent to Europe to discourage Russia from attacking the democracies.

Again let me say that I do not take sides between Messrs. Schlesinger and Safire. But I think it might be wise for critics of US foreign policy to realize how divided the advice is at this moment. We shall be fortunate if it doesn't become a bitter and even paralyzing issue in the presidential campaign.

Actually, Mr. Carter seems to be down-pedaling the Iran issue and sanctions for the time being and turning to domestic matters. Voters on the whole, I think, are more interested in current agonizing economic problems at home than they are in perplexing conflicts abroad.

It will be interesting to hear what Governor Reagan says. He has still a good way to go in filling out his foreign affairs approach. He was a hawk in the controversy over the Panama Canal treaties but has been guarded, so far, about sanctions.

Republicans will surely argue that they can handle foreign affairs better (and they may well be right). But will the attack be for going too far (Schlesinger) or not far enough (Safire)?

Like old-fashioned radio serials the episode stops at an exciting moment. Continued in our next.

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