US challenges: missiles, NATO, and Mitterrand

During this past week it was the turn of President Reagan's Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, to try to sell foreign policy Reaganism to the West European allies -- a task not made easier by the election victory of the Socialists in France.

His mission to the NATO defense ministers in Brussels followed by four days a similar effort by the President himself in Washington with Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, and that, in turn, followed by three days Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig's mission to the NATO foreign ministers in Rome.

The central theme of the three missions was the Soviet menace, the general need for allied unity, and the special need for building more guns and bigger armies.

The going is slow. Yes, Japan will "make greater efforts for improving its defense capability." But Mr. Suzuki ran into a wave of criticism when he got home for having said it.

Yes, the West Germans know they promised to increase their defense budget and will still try to do it, but only if Washington will resume arms-reduction talks with the Soviets.

Yes, at the Rome conference the NATO foreign ministers were firm in their rhetoric, but they were less firm when it came to promises of future action if the Soviets did unpleasant things to Poland or someone else.

The hard East-West confrontation line of the Reagan administration is not going down well with the allies. They will not promise to break off their own version of "detente" just to get into line with Washington. They certainly do not like many details of the new Reagan foreign policy, and they have not fallen into step behind it.

All of which underlines one of the more important characteristics of these times. We are no longer living in the era of a bipolar world dominated on one side by Moscow and on the other by Washington. Soviet clients and allies give the Kremlin a lot of back talk and trouble -- Poland being the classic case in point. America's allies are just as assertive about their individual points of view.

Nationalistic pluralism is the hallmark of these times just as superpower primacy marked an earlier phase in history. The French election is likely to make things still more difficult for Washington's effort to call for bigger defense budgets and speak more sternly to the men of Moscow --

The new French President, being a Socialist, is likely to join the West Germans in sympathizing with the rebels in El Salvador rather than with the Reagan-Haig plan to bolster the junta that is chasing the rebels. And the defeat at the French polls of Valery Giscard d'Estaing by Francois Mitterrand breaks up Giscard's partnership with West Germany's Helmut Schmidt, which had become an element of stability within the West European community.

Will Herr Schmidt, a Social Democrat, get along as easily with M. Mitterrand, a Socialist? Or, ironically, will Herr Schmidt now find an easier relationship with British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Where before there was a familiar pattern there is now some uncertainty, particularly about economic matters.

Mr. Mitterrand cannot automatically carry out all his campaign pledges anymore than can Mr. Reagan in Washington. But insofar as he can lead or influence the French legislative process, he will presumably move France toward a softer economy at a time when West Germany, Britain, and the US are trying for harder economics with less social security and more antiinflation measures.

He is believed likely also to put a little more distance between France and its NATO allies. Giscard had been narrowing the gap. French military cooperation with NATO has improved substantially although quietly over the last three or four years. Mitterrand's campaign rhetoric pointed to more French independence from allies in NATO matters.

On the other hand the new French President is expected to be more sympathetic toward Israel, hence he might cooperate more easily with Mr. Reagan's pro-Israel stance than do the West Germans and British.

That matter is particularly urgent at the moment as Reagan finds himself having to restrain Israel from attacking Syrian antiaircraft missile batteries in Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin says he intended to have those batteries taken out by the Israeli Air Force on April 30 and was frustrated by weather. When the operation was to be renewed, he had a letter from Secretary of State Haig requesting time. Now the Syrians have reinforced to the point where the attack might be too costly.

The case as presented by Mr. Begin would appear to have bought him new leverage in Washington. He can argue that he gave up a military opportunity for Israel to oblige Mr. Reagan. This, he claims, has hurt Israel's ability to protect its interests.He should get something in return. What?

Mr. Reagan is having his baptism in crisis management. If he stands aside and allows Israel to attack the Syrian defense positions, he will incur the displeasure of the entire Arab community. It will make it harder for him to work out arrangements for placing US troops and weapons in the area of the Arab peninsula and the Gulf. But if he restrains Israel, he may face reprisals at home at the hands of the pro-Israel lobby.

The pattern shows the new President and the new administration having to negotiate with European allies, with Japan, and with both Israel and Syria all at once. Conducting US foreign policy is not easy or simple in these days of a multifaceted world.

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