Can Reagan turn the tanker?

The Reagan administration comes to power committed to sweeping changes in both domestic and foreign policy, as well as in the style of governing. So did the Carter administration four years ago. Both won elections campaigning against Washington as a symbol of government grown too big and unresponsive.

Carter found, as Reagan doubtless will, that regardless of what any president and the people who vote for him may want, the US Government changes direction more by accretion than by abrupt shifts in course. In part, this is because of bureaucratic inertia, not so much intransigence or insubordination as that the bureaucracy is like a supertanker: turning it around takes time and space. In part, it is because of the intractability of the problems. And finally, it is because of the time-consuming process of cajoling authority and/or money out of Congress.

Further, no incoming administration starts from scratch. Every new president has to pick up the threads of policy where his predecessor left them for better or worse.

The overwhelming impression left by the Carter administration is gray. There have been a few solid accomplishments -- ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties, normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China, and the Camp David process in the Middle East. Reagan would undo the Canal treaties and the normalization with the PRC if he could, but he probably can't; and with respect to the PRC, he may not even want to after he considers the intricacies of the Moscow-Peking- Washington triangle. The Camp David process is stalled and may stay that way pending an election in Israel.

The Carter administration's most conspicuous foreign policy failures were SALT II and Iran.SALT II was a victim of circumstances -- the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which came on top of a marked lack of enthusiasm in the Senate anyway. Reagan wants to get right to work on SALT III. Moscow has sent conflicting signals about its willingness to cooperate. It is worth remembering that Carter's first big foreign policy embarrassment came when he tried to junk Ford's Vladivostok agreement and negotiate even tougher restrictions. The Soviets said "nyet," and it took another two years to get SALT II.

The Carter failure in Iran Goes beyond inability to secure release of the hostages.It is rooted in the question of why they became hostages in the first place and more deeply in the question of why the Carter administration did not sooner recognize the shakiness of the Shah's regime. This is the stuff of which great Senate investigations are made, and it is to be hoped that the Senate will address the problem once the hostages are home.

In most other respects, the Carter foreign policy record has been decidely mixed. Early in his administration, Carter announced a policy of limiting conventional arms sales, but it proved to have more exceptions that limitations. The same can be said for his efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

The most mixed Carter foreign policy of all, perhaps, had to do with human rights. Carter did not invent human rights as an element of foreign policy; Congress did that during the Nixon- Ford years because it was offended by the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger record in Chile. But Carter brought it front and center. His rhetoric outran the national interest and made his performance look contradictory if not hypocritical.

The failures of human rights policy came in such countries as South Korea, the Philippines, and Iran where there were presumed to be overriding considerations of national security.

The modest successes came in Latin America where repressive governments, such as those in Brazil, Uruguay, and even Chile, became less repressive (all the while complaining about foreign interference). Throughout Latin America the oppressed took heart that they had, for once, support in Washington.

Since the November election, that situation has been reversed. Now it is the authoritarian right-wing governments, notably in El Salvador and Guatemala, which are taking heart. These governments see themselves, and hope to be seen by the Reagan administration, as the only alternative to communism.

The opposing view is that the longer they are sustained, the more likely they are to be followed by a Castro or a Khomeini. This opposing view was never fully adopted by the Carter administration which stayed with Somoza in Nicaragua longer than it should have in a vain attempt to find a more moderate successor than the Sandinistas who emerged. Still, all in all the Sandinistas are radicals, but they are not communists.

That choice between radicals and communists may be the only one available in Central America, and the ability to make the distinction may turn out to be the first big noticeable difference between the outgoing and in coming administrations.

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