US revives Soviet containment policy, but is stymied on Israel
The Nixon-Kissinger system which has kept the Soviet Union bracketed and contained on east and west flanks over the past 10 years is back in position and working again, although in damaged and shaky condition.
The two men sent out from Washington to do an emergency salvage and repair job on the system, Vice-President George Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz, got home on Thursday and could report to their leader, President Reagan, that neither China nor the West European allies are seriously thinking of pulling out of the system.
But they had also to report that prudent and consistent consideration of the interests of the others will be necessary to keep the system working.
The other important world event of the past week was the report of the special commission in Israel on the Sabra and Shatila camp massacres. The report's condemnation of the behavior of several top Israeli military figures unsettled the political situation inside Israel with an unintentional side effect.
Until Israel's political pattern is stabilized with or without the presence in the Cabinet of Israel's sharply criticized defense minister, Ariel Sharon, there can be little further progress toward withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, or toward a resolution of the problem of the other occupied Arab territories.
The net practical effect of the report is to sidetrack Washington pressure on Israel to get its troops out of Lebanon and to begin negotiations under the Reagan proposal of last September for establishment of Palestinian political autonomy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
During the week President Reagan attempted to get things moving again in that direction. He said Israel is unnecessarily delaying the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon. He said that Israel is under a ''moral'' obligation not to become an ''occupying force'' in Lebanon.
But the next day he praised Israel for having conducted the investigation into the massacre and described Israel as ''a strong democracy.''
For the time being the preoccupation in Israel is with the report and its consequences. Will the Begin government survive? Will Mr. Sharon leave his job as defense minister, as recommended by the Cabinet Thursday and by the commission? Will the Cabinet be reformed? Will the Begin-Sharon policy of territorial expansion be confirmed or weakened by public reaction to the report?
Until those matters are resolved, the members of the Israeli government will have little time for President Reagan's Middle East envoy, Philip Habib.
The essential fact is that the building of dwellings for Israeli settlers in the occupied territories goes on steadily. This week, The Christian Science Monitor in a report from Beirut by Robin Wright disclosed that Israeli occupation authorities are busy setting up local government units and militia forces of Israeli design in southern Lebanon.
In other words, the process of consolidating Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon and of other occupied territories goes on, undisturbed by the furor inside Israel over the report on the camp killings, which found Sharon and several of his generals to be ''indirectly responsible'' for the massacres. The process is also undeterred and undisturbed by anything President Reagan has said in Washington. The return to Washington of Bush and Shultz from their respective missions to seven European NATO members and China put these two high-ranking members of the Reagan administration into the new role of interpreters to the President of the thoughts and interests of those governments most important to the collective efforts of containing the Soviet Union.
China, Japan, and the European members of NATO all have an interest in the containment of Soviet power and influence. Soviet influence was contained in Europe from the time NATO was set up in 1949. President Nixon's trip to China in 1972 brought China into the containment system.
From that date there has been no further Soviet expansion either to the east or west. (The suppression of Solidarity in Poland was to prevent the escape of Poland from the Warsaw Pact - hence an exercise in retention of an existing condition, not an expansion.) There have been repeated incidents of Soviet expansionism to the south. Afghanistan is the latest case.
The sending of the vice-president to NATO and the secretary of state to China reflected a belated appreciation inside the Reagan White House of the importance of the relationship with those two forces in the world. That relationship was damaged during the first two Reagan years, partly by neglect but largely by lack of understanding of its importance.
It is possible that had the two trips not taken place, the whole system might have come unstuck. China was beginning to pull away. NATO was pushed into a state of incipient rebellion over the Reagan program for economic sanctions. Anti-American sentiment reached new highs in Europe over the past year.
Vice-President Bush could reassure the President on his return that NATO still exists. But he also had to explain to the President that it may not be possible after all to deploy the new intermediate-range missiles in Europe this year, as intended.
Popular sentiment in Britain particularly has turned strongly against the deployment. Polls show 60 percent now oppose the missiles. Certainly there will have to be impressive progress in negotiations with the Soviets toward arms control if popular opinion is to be turned around enough to permit the deployment.
The past week also saw the mounting of a substantial military offensive into Iraq by Iran. Reports from the two sides were contradictory. It is not possible yet to know whether Iran has the military capacity to sustain a successful invasion of Iraq. But it has long since proved its ability to repel the original Iraqi invasion of Iran.