Cold war or cloud of rhetoric?

The foreign policy rhetoric of the new Reagan administration continues to be hard-line during its third week in office. But it is too early to arrive yet at a judgment on whether performance will match rhetoric.

For example, rhetoric calls for putting "human rights" aside and being willing to do foreign policy business with a military or any other kind of dictatorship so long as it is "on our side." In line with that posture President Reagan received the new dictator of South Korea, Chun Doo Hwan, at the White House and announced restoration of full normal relations between the United States and South Korea.

However, this was done only after President Chun had lifted martial law, reduced censorship, and commuted the death sentence passed by the South Korean Army and Supreme Court on Kim Dae Jung, who had been Mr. Chun's chief political rival. In other words the visit to the White House was Mr. Chun's reward for having accorded to his political rival the elementary human right of life.

So, has there been an essential change in operating policies, or only in the surrounding rhetoric?

The same question comes up in respect to US relations with the Soviet Union. At his first press conference on Jan. 29 President Reagan asserted that the Soviets "reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime; to lie; to cheat. . . ." Those are strong words. They are the kind of words usually reserved for prewar situations when a government is whipping up public emotions against a future enemy.

But four days later, at a briefing at the White House for a selected list of reporters, Mr. Reagan said he wished the question that had prompted his strong words had not been asked. He repeated the strong words but went on to say that he is ready and willing to talk to the Soviet leaders whenever they are ready to discuss "a legitimate reduction of nuclear weapons."

So, is Reagan policy toward the Soviet Union to be a return to the "cold war" and confrontation, as the strong words would seem to imply? Or is it to be business as usual inside the cloud of rhetoric?

It is one thing to take away from Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin the right to drive into the State Department garage instead of having to come in by the formal front door. But that doesn't matter if he can still see the secretary of state any time he thinks it useful or necessary.

One acid test of Reagan policy toward East-West relations will presumably come on the question of the grain embargo, which is still in force. During the campaign Mr. Reagan came out against the grain embargo on the ground that it would not be effective. But he has not yet repealed the embargo. If he wants a way to signal the Kremlin to ignore the words and get ready to talk business, he will lift the grain embargo. If he really does want to keep at arm's length from Moscow for the time being, he will keep the embargo.

The affair of the US Ambassador to El Salvador is another case in point. Ambassador Robert E. White has been told that he will be replaced. But the State Department denies this means a change in policy toward El Salvador.

The dismissed ambassador had been a strong advocate of backing the relatively moderate political center against both a communist left movement and a hard rightist element. Both left and right extremes in El Salvador maintain military organizations and kill frequently.

Ambassador White has been unusually outspoken in support of his own policies. In a series of interviews before the Reagan inauguration he accused some Reagan people of undermining his middle-road policy. Career foreign service ambassadors seldom speak out so boldly. When they do, they sometimes lose their jobs.

Mr. White was ripe for replacement by the incoming Reagan team regardless of the soundness of his policies.His dismissal does not prove a change of policy. Nor, of course, do the disclaimers prove there won't be a change.

The continuing uncertainty about Reagan foreign-policy directions is not surprising. It is customary in American politics for the party on the outside to criticize the policies of the incumbent, then discover when in office that the criticized policies had solid reasons behind them.

Students of diplomacy recall that during the 1952 campaign, John Foster Dulles, who was foreign-policy spokesman for the Republicans, proposed to "roll back the iron curtain." He became known for his "brinkmanship." Yet in actual operating policies he was the very soul of caution. He never did roll back any iron curtains or even seriously try to do so. But his rhetoric was useful as a screen to keep his critics and opponents guessing.

Mr. Reagan has almost everyone guessing about what will emerge from his administration in the form of actual operating policy. He sounds like a cold warrior. His choice of words is not diplomatic. But his choice of operators for the State Department has been conventional. Most of them are experienced professionals.

The new secretary of state, Alexander Haig, served his apprenticeship under Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon during the days when they sired detente. He has since commanded the armed forces of NATO and inevitably regards the Soviet Union as the potential enemy to be watched and guarded against.

But Secretary Haig also knows the true military situation and hence knows that it would be foolhardy for the NATO countries to get into a war with the Soviets. He also knows that the allies have no stomach for any such war. At his own first press conference his words were chosen more carefully than were those of his superior officer, the President. He did not use the prewar-type words. He did apply the label "consciously ambiguous" to words the President had used about reaction to a possible future hostage incident.

In sum, the Reagan posture is "cold war" and confrontation. But operations do not yet imitate the po sture.

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