Beaten to the punch by Brezhnev

Plainly, the government in Washington needs a coordinator of information - or what, in some countries, would be called a propaganda minister.

It needs one because the face it has been presenting to the outside world could hardly be more poorly calculated to win friends and influence allies.

The climactic example was the instant negative it returned to a brilliantly timed piece of Soviet peace propaganda.

Leonid Brezhnev has just tossed out what purported to be a new proposal for curbing the deployment of nuclear missiles in the European theater. He said March 16 that he would halt further Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles until either an agreement might be reached with the United States or the US began deployment in Western Europe of NATO's new generation of weapons.

The move was made after a week in which the headlines were dominated by news reports of unpleasant things President Reagan had decided to do to Nicaragua. It had first been reported on March 10 that he had authorized the CIA to conduct a ''destabilization'' campaign in Nicaragua against the revolutionary Sandinista government there. Paramilitary guerrillas would be sent in, according to the story, to blow up bridges and power lines.

There were various versions of the story over following days, all attributed to administration officials. One explanation of the stories, offered by a White House official, was that the White House wanted people to know that it was ''doing something.''

Whatever the motive and whatever the real nature of the plan, it caused, or permitted, the Sandinista leadership in Nicaragua to wrap itself in the mantle of patriotism, to call up the militia and reserves ''to defend the fatherland,'' and to declare a ''state of seige.''

The net effect in propaganda terms was to present the huge and mighty US as a lumbering Goliath threatening tiny Nicaragua with physical destruction.

And at that very moment Mr. Brezhnev dons the white robes of the purported peacemaker and makes a proposal about nuclear weapons that to an ordinary citizen on the streets would sound reassuring and desirable.

An expert in public relations or propaganda would know that the prudent answer to such a move is to welcome it as a ''possible step in the right direction.'' One should say, ''We will give it our closest attention. It doesn't seem to compare with the broader peace plan we have already offered, but we'll see if we can find something of real value in it.''

By taking that sort of a positive approach, such a Soviet maneuver can be neutralized. Sometimes it might even be pushed in a constructive direction. But to coldly and instantly denounce it as propaganda (which, of course, it is) leaves the propaganda advantage with Mr. Brezhnev.

The man in the street, both in the US and in West Europe, is yearning for some reassurance about the danger of nuclear weapons. The town meetings of Vermont and New Hampshire have just been voting resolutions calling for a nuclear freeze.

Over in Western Europe the allies have stalled on sanctions against Moscow over Poland for the simple reason that everywhere over there the popular yearning is for peace rather than war. Last year, antinuclear demonstrations brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of West European cities.

The Brezhnev maneuver therefore fits into the prevailing popular mood of the day. He purports to offer what people want - reassurance that modern civilization is not about to be wiped out in an act of supreme military wildness.

What is Washington offering to the world at this moment?

It offers guns to the ruling junta in El Salvador, a threat to blow up bridges and power stations in Nicaragua (two bridges were blown up), and a negative answer to Moscow on the idea of a nuclear freeze in Europe.

It then attempts to justify this bellicose posture by displaying aerial photographs of Nicaragua that prove what we have all accepted anyway - that Nicaragua is building an army and getting Soviet tanks and aircraft with which to defend itself. It may be building a greater force than needed for defense, as Washington claims. Or it may feel it has good reason to be worried about those refugee Nicaraguans training in Florida and California for an attempted counterrevolution, possibly backed by the US.

Add that when the State Department tried to improve its case for stern measures against Nicaragua it exposed to the press a Nicaraguan captured in El Salvador. The prisoner proceeded to say precisely the opposite of what he was supposed to say. He claimed he had been told that he would be put to death unless he repeated what he had said to his interrogators: that he had been trained in Ethiopia and Cuba for service with the guerrillas in El Salvador. On stage, he denied it all. We cannot know which of his tales was true.

How long has it been since you have read about or paid much attention to what is happening to the people in Poland?

Propaganda is news manipulation. Successful propaganda manipulates the news to suit the interests of the country using it. In this case, Washington's drum fire emphasis on Central America and Mr. Brezhnev's donning of the white robes of peacemaker have focused world attention on American bellicosity, not on what the Soviets are still doing in Afghanistan and Poland.

Matters are made worse for Washington by the obvious lack of any consistent or clear strategy for ending the present condition of tension in Central America. Over this same period of time US Secretary of State Alexander Haig has had two meetings with Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda that led to reports of possible negotiations with Cuba and Nicaragua.

But when right-wing supporters of the Reagan administration complained about the idea of such negotiations, Mr. Haig backed away, saying there are no plans for any such talks. He added that he has not authorized the Mexicans to talk to the Cubans or Nicaraguans on behalf of the US.

In other words, when it comes to manipulating the news the veteran Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow is a past master. He knows precisely when to don peace robes to cover up what he may be doing in some other place. Mid-March has been a propaganda morass for the Washington team.

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