President Reagan was all primed for a quiet weekend of concentration on improving relations with Mexico when the word came in that the Israelis had bombed and taken out Iraq's French-built nuclear reactor. It was an act of war committed by America's client, Israel, against one of the important purveyors of oil to the industrial democracies.
It was a surprise to President Reagan. It diverted attention from the scheduled subject for the weekend. It forced a new problem upon a White House which was unprepared for that particular new problem. It became necessary to improvise an official US reaction which might at one and the same time satisfy the Arab countries without offending Israel's many and politically powerful supporters in the United States. That is not an easy task.
President Reagan has a set of priorities which is obviously sound and in the long-term US interest. His first priority is to stabilize the American economy. That means a rescue from chronic inflation and restoration of a sound and reliable dollar.
His second priority is to rebuild America's military posture in the world.
There can be no doubt that if Mr. Reagan could spend his first two or three years in office stabilizing the American economy and improving its military posture he would be in a better position to deal with foreign affairs than at present. Quite naturally, he tries to push those foreign problems into the future when he will have had time to study them and will be able to deal with them from greater strength.
But the trouble is that the world won't wait. Things keep on happening which could be influenced by the US today. No matter how much more weight and influence Washington may have three years from now, it still has enormous weight and influence right now. Failure to use the influence and weight it has today can make tomorrow's problems worse than they need be.
Those Israel bombs on Iraq's nearly complete nuclear reactor are a case in point. Two previous attempts have been made to damage or destroy that reactor. In both cases Israeli agents were generally believed to have been the probable cause.
ISrael planes recently shot down two Syrian helicopters while operating over the Bekaa valley of Lebanon in support of Syrian ground troops.
If Washington had objected to that deed at the time, Prime minister Begin would have been on notice that he was going too far in his offensive military actions beyond Israel's frontiers. But Washington did not object. It sent a special emissary, Philip Habib, to the Middle East to try to negotiate between Israel and Syria. In effect, Mr. Begin had a green light from Washington. He used it for the raid on Iraq.
Poland may well be another case in point. Moscow is deeply distressed by its failure so far to persuade or induce the Polish communist party to resume effective control over Poland. Moscow thinks it cannot tolerate political pluralism in Poland. If it survives there, it could spread to Czechoslovakia and East Germany. If it spread to East Germany, Moscow could lose the things it values most in Europe -- the division of Germany with half in Soviet military hands.
If Washington were deep in negotiation with Moscow, it is possible that it could present reasons which Moscow would consider sufficient to justify restraint towards the Poles.Certainly the chance of a brutal descent on Poland would be reduced during a period of negotiation. The reverse is true. during a period of minimal dialogue between Washington and Moscow, the men in the Kremlin have greater reason to fear US interference in Poland and to fear the results of trend towards independence in Poland.
We are now in a period of minimal dialogue between Washington and Moscow. It is punctuated by unfriendly words tossed over the intervening space.The worse the atmosphere the more reason the hawks in Moscow have for pressing the case for suppression of freedom in Poland.
Which is Mr. Reagan's present dilemma.
He wants more strength before going into nogotiations with the Soviets. But the longer he waits the more strength he may need.The world is inconsiderate in such matters. It does not sta nd still for the convenience of American presidents.