Mr. Reagan's paid televised broadcast last Sunday night (Oct. 19) disclosed something which he and his advisers had apparently not expected: The Carter people have succeeded in maneuvering Mr. Reagan onto the defensive in foreign policy.
At this late stage in the campaign, the Reagan staff obviously had expected to be on the attack where Mr. Carter is most vulnerable, on the state of the economy. But somehow that strategic situation has evaded them, perhaps partly because the financial pages almost daily are telling us now that the recession is over.
That expensive half hour of prime time television was not bought for pushing the attack on economic policy. Instead, it was devoted entirely to attempting to rescue Mr. Reagan's foreign policy image. He is going down the home stretch now waving an olive branch instead of calling for more nuclear weapons and protesting that he is being unfairly labeled by Mr. Carter as a confrontationist.
Quite the contrary, according to the Ronald Reagan of last Sunday night. He wants to avoid a nuclear arms race, he says, just as much as does anyone, and to prove it he promises to open new negotiations with the Soviets over nuclear weapons just as soon as possible after he is elected. Besides, he disclaims all responsibility for the fact that the Senate has not yet ratified the SALT II arms treaty which the Carter administration had negotiated.
This substantially narrows the differences between the two main presidential contenders on matters of foreign policy.
Mr. Carter has announced that if re- elected he will press for ratification of SALT II. Mr. Reagan says he, too, wants a SALT treaty, although one he himself will negotiate.
Also, there was in that Reagan speech a big narrowing of another gap -- over China policy. Mr. Reagan opened his presidential campaign on a pro-Taiwan, anti-Peking posture. He sounded almost as though he wanted to cancel the Nixon-Kissinger reconciliation with mainland China and go back to the previous US policy of hostility toward mainland China. But no longer. On Sunday night he declared:
"Our relationship with the People's Republic of China is in its beginning stages. . . . I will work to amplify it wherever possible. Expanded trade, cultural contact, and other arrangements will all serve the cause of preserving and extending the ties between our two countries."
So what is left of any substantial difference between the Reagan and Carter positions on important matters of foreign policy? Just one, the Middle East.
Mr. Reagan avoided that subject in his foreign policy broadcast. But he is on record repeatedly as declaring that "Israel is a major strategic asset to America" and a "military offset to the Soviet Union."
If you take that as your premise for a Middle East policy, then you give Israel everything it wants at any time and refrain from using any form of pressure on Israel to push it toward a settlement of its difference with its Arab neighbors.
Mr. Carter has repeatedly asserted his devotion to the survival of a secure and prosperous Israel, but he has not voiced or acted upon the assumption that Israel is a military asset to the United States. His Camp David approach is based on the reverse premise that Israel's continuing state of hostility toward its Arab neighbors complicates and makes more difficult the task of building a new American presence in the Middle East in cooperation with the Arabs of the area.
It is also a usually unstated assumption among Western diplomats that Israel's persisting quarrel with its Arab neighbors gives those and other Arabs a reason for turning to Moscow for weapons and aid which would disappear in the event of an Israel-Arab peace. Hence, by implication, a Reagan win gives Israel a free hand with unquestioning US support while a Carter win would mean an attempt to revive the Camp David peace process with Washington putting some pressure on Israel.
There is therefore a real difference in foreign policy over the Middle East. But on China and nuclear weapons policy, Mr. Reagan has, in substance, joined Mr. Carter and forsworn any difference.
Why? Obviously because Mr. Reagan's previous positions on these issues had made him vulnerable to the charge of being more interested in weapons than in peace. And Mr. Reagan was finding that charge painful. The polls have showed him losing his advantage. Public opinion apparently prefers peace to war just now. So Mr. Reagan has sheathed his sword and sent his charger back to the stable.