Foreign policy: Reagan's tally
Washington — Well over halfway into his current term, President Reagan is having difficulty pointing to any major foreign policy achievement. But pollsters and pundits are divided on whether this will really make any difference to the President's reelection prospects.
Administration officials, meanwhile, say the real test of Mr. Reagan's foreign policy is likely to come in his second term, if there is one. This is because the President has set foreign and defense goals, they say, which could not be quickly achieved by any administration.
The Israel-Lebanon peace accords signed Tuesday were certainly a diplomatic achievement for Israel, Lebanon, and the United States. But much still depends on implementation - and on Soviet-backed Syria and other Arab nations which do not always respond to American influence. The Reagan plan for an Arab-Israeli peace based on a solution to the Palestinian problem looks increasingly unachievable. Critics charge that the Reagan administration is constantly reacting to Middle East events rather than shaping them.
The immediate future would appear at first glance to offer any number of opportunities for tangible foreign policy progress:
* The Middle East seems to be at a turning point.
* The US-Soviet talks on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) reopened in Geneva Tuesday.
* And the Williamsburg summit of seven leading industrialized democracies, set for May 28-30, is being designed to symbolize Western unity.
But in the Middle East, one has to allow for unexpected complications.
Few observers think the INF negotiations will go anywhere soon. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the Soviets still hope to disrupt or delay the deployment of new American missiles in Europe set to begin in December. Until the Soviets see the missiles being installed and Western Europe accepting it, this reasoning goes, they will not negotiate seriously.
And the effort to rid Williamsburg of confrontation carries a price. The goals laid out for the summit are so broad that they're virtually free of content. As one senior State Department official explained it, Williamsburg is going to involve ''a lot of soothing and massaging.''
Thus in three major arenas - the Middle East, the arms control talks, and the Western alliance - quick successes are ruled out by many experts.
Americans tend to be oriented toward concrete results and they like to see their results achieved yesterday, not tomorrow. But the top priority items on the Reagan agenda - building defenses while negotiating sharp nuclear arms reductions, moderating the Soviet Union's international behavior, strengthening Western unity vis-a-vis the Soviets, and containing Soviet and Cuban influence in Central America - are not the kinds of matters that are likely to yield quick results.
When asked recently how he would respond to allegations that his foreign policy had produced no results, the President responded in a way which was hardly convincing:
''Well, I say that that's a very distorted picture,'' the President said. ''And I think that we've made great progress. Beirut is no longer being shelled on a daily basis around the clock, 15 hours of bombardment in one day. Yes, we are down to negotiating - sure, there are incidents - but we are down to negotiating the withdrawal of foreign forces after eight years of combat and invasion and harassment from outside as well as inside in Lebanon.
''With regard to Western Europe, I do not believe that the NATO alliance has ever been more solid than it is now. . . . The same thing is true in Asia and Japan . . . I could wish that we could move faster in some of these things. And when you say the arms talks, as I said before, it took seven years for the SALT talks.''
Here is where the Democrats come in. Some see an opportunity to make foreign and defense policies an issue in the 1984 presidential election. Pollster Peter Hart, now working with presidential aspirant Walter F. Mondale, supports the view that economic recovery alone will not be enough to reelect Reagan next year and that the President's management of the big foreign policy issues, such as arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, could make a difference.
''Foreign policy, except when it comes to individual groups - Greek-Americans , Jewish Americans, and other special-interest groups - has not been a great issue in most elections,'' said Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center in Washington, D.C.
''The one exception is the war-peace issue,'' said Mr. Scammon.
One recent poll, a Washington Post/ABC poll published April 15, seemed to indicate that Reagan has yet to allay the concern of a significant number of Americans that he may not be sufficiently serious about securing arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. As one analyst of such polls put it, ''A lot of Americans are not yet persuaded that this guy is going for arms control in a really meaningful way.''
Scammon considers Reagan's recent agreement to work with congressmen to incorporate the so-called ''build down'' concept into future arms accords as a classic example of a President trying to combine arms control with a strengthening of defenses. The concept would allow for a modernization of nuclear forces but require each side to dismantle two nuclear warheads for every new one deployed. Some experts assert that the Soviets might be interested in this concept but that, given the rigidity of the Soviet bureaucracy, few would expect quick negotiating results.
The Reagan administration has, in the meantime, achieved one thing in recent months which is immediately apparent. Thanks perhaps in large part to the self-confidence and civil manner of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the battles between the White House and State Department which have characterized many an administration have been either avoided or muted. Mr. Shultz encountered some sniping from anonymous White House officials recently - they charged that he had been too slow to launch his Middle East shuttle - but this was mere child's play compared with the volleys that were occasionally fired at Shultz's predecessor, Alexander M. Haig Jr.
According to most accounts, Shultz managed to ease tensions among the NATO allies following last year's confrontation between the Americans and Europeans over the projected Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe.
Over the past few months, there have been signs that government-to-government relations among the allies have been strengthened. The studies Shultz had proposed on the touchy issues of East-West trade and energy dependence on the East bloc seem to amount to more than mere cosmetics.
''I really do believe the alliance is in better shape than it's been for a long time,'' said a senior State Department official. ''I think people who wring their hands about the state of the alliance ignore history. The alliance has always been characterized by disagreement and debate. There's never been a period when there's absolute calm.''
''I think what has happened in the last six months or so is that the major players within the alliance, the major leaders, have recognized that 1983 is a critical year, a potentially decisive year,'' the official said. ''All of those leaders have basically taken the same position on the crucial question of INF. We've won a strong endorsement for our negotiating position in Geneva.''
But measuring the strength, or weakness, of the alliance has never been an easy matter. And when it comes to the presidential election campaign, neither Republicans nor Democrats are likely to make decisive points on the issue - unless something totally unexpected occurs, such as the collapse of a West European government in the face of popular opposition to the deployment of new American missiles. More likely to be big issues, in the view of some analysts, are arms control and El Salvador. In both these areas, a Democratic presidential candidate might be tempted to attack. Reagan may sense this when he appeals for bipartisanship on arms control and Central America.
''I see a real effort to eliminate foreign policy as an issue by seeking a return to a bipartisan approach,'' one administration official said.