Mr. Haig and the 'idiot stick'

One of the more fatuous manifestations of modern journalism is the doorstep television interview, in which an itinerant statesman is accosted in the act of emerging from an airport lounge or a conference room; a hand microphone, known in the trade as an idiot stick, is thrust perilously near to his left nostril; and he is asked, in the somewhat threatening tones affected by contemporary media-persons, to state in full and without evasion his views on nuclear deterrence, the decline of American power, and the food in the Savoy Grill.

When Secretary of State Alexander Haig visited London recently, he was inevitably subjected to this sort of nuisance, the principal line of questioning being the differences between the United States and Britain in their approach to the Middle East. Mr. Haig, with admirable courtesy and restraint, suggested that it was premature to comment on American policy in this area; meanwhile Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, clearly preferring a change of subject, proposed that he and his guest might be allowed to get on with the serious business of discussing these matters with each other, rather than with the press.

From this somewhat unilluminating exchange, the assembled observers of the international scene arrived, according to their own political prejudices, at three distinct and contradictory conclusions -- one, that no differences existed; two, that Lord Carrington had persuaded Mr. Haig of the justice and wisdom of the European approach; and three, that he had attempted to do so but had been told by Mr. Haig to go jump in the River Thames.

All this is entirely characteristic of the current state of relations within the Western alliance. The Western European allies are themselves in a state of some confusion, their principal but tenuous binding force being a dim perception that they disagree with the US. Although this disarray has come to the surface most recently over the approach to the problems of Southwest Asia, the Gulf, and the Middle East, it has more wide-ranging implications.

The years of "detente" have bred in many West Europeans a weary cynicism most clearly reflected in their perception (or lack of perception) of the Soviet threat. Many European leaders -- not all of them of the extreme left -- subscribe to the comfortable belief that the Soviet Union is a nervous, defensive, and fundamentally harmless power, believing itself to be threatened by the Chinese on one side and an aggressive North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the other. The progressive expansion of Russian armed forces at all levels is explained away as a natural reaction to this sense of vulnerability.

One of the more disturbing results of this is the growth in Western Europe of a popular attachment to the pacifist-neutralist approach -- articulated most stridently by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a British-based movement which advocates the unilateral abandonment by Britain of its nuclear striking force, the withdrawal of American bases, and the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in Europe. In its more extreme forms it demands the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from NATO. In the 1950s and early 1960s, CND was a minority popular movement, without substantial support among the major political parties. Its platform has now been adopted almost without reservation by the Labour Party and by the left-wing politician Anthony Wedgwood Benn in his current campaign to secure the leadership of the party.

This febrile and defeatist reaction to the realities of international power is compounded by a sense of crisis and disarray in Western Europe brought about by economic recession; the apparent failure of the "European idea," submerged in a succession of acrimonious squabbles about sheep-meat, fish, and Golden Delicious apples; and an inability to evolve common strategic perceptions within the Western alliance.

Much of this can be traced to a crisis of confidence in American leadership arising from what many Europeans regard as a period of erratic unpredictability in US foreign policy. Events in Angola, Iran, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua have done little to convince America's allies that they can rely upon the White House to exercise the functions of the leadership of the free world.

Out of this have arisen confusion about the credibility of the American nuclear guarantee and, indirectly, the so-called "European initiative" in the Middle East. This springs almost entirely from the fact that the views of the Americans and the West Europeans about fundamental strategic issues are in direct conflict. It is a conflict which will not be resolved on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street by a secretary of state and a foreign secretary threatened by ladies and gentlemen with idiot sticks.

It is a matter which affects the basic cohesion of the Western alliance, and one which should be at the top of President Reagan's check-list when he emerges from his c onvalescence.

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