Weighing the enemy

Both the Congress and the White House are wrestling their way toward some approximation of how seriously to take the Soviet Union's global threat to democracy.

It can be a mistake to make so much of your enemy that, obsessed, you allow him to dictate your actions and deflect you from realizing your own ideals. The other extreme, of course, is to imagine peace where there is danger and be overwhelmed.

Just where to strike the balance between vigilance and obsession is not always easy to know. Democratic governments can give only an approximate sense of the best cut at the moment. This is what the White House and Congress are up to now.

The White House is in a militarily assertive phase. Those who thought national security adviser William Clark's exit from the White House last month meant a more moderate, negotiating trend in Reagan foreign affairs have seen policy take an even harder-line turn. The clampdown on press access to Grenada, also thought to be a Clark-like action, found other sponsors in his absence. Now military officers are said to have the President's ear. And in a week President Reagan will be off to East Asia, emphasizing security ties with Japan and South Korea in yet another region.

Meanwhile, Congress labors to react. Capitol Hill's decisions in recent days on the War Powers Resolution, military programs like the MX missile, commitment of troops to the Middle East and the Carribbean, and a congressional fact-finding trip to Grenada reflect Congress's attempt in concrete ways to get a grip on the more basic issue of calibrating action to the nature of the communist global challenge. The margin of survival for the MX continues to shrink. Congress could not bring itself to abandon, with a Marine pullout, the US investment in Lebanon; it hopes the administration will lure Israel into helping out there. It made the easier gesture of disapproving of White House adventurism by invoking the War Powers Resolution in Grenada, setting a two-month limit on troop deployment without further review.

In short, Congress is showing both its frustration and its cumbersomeness at dealing with foreign policy.

Much of this reflects the institutional jockeying for power between White House and Congress that was deliberately built into the American system. But there's a deeper level to it too: the responsibility of public officials to define the enemy and make sure it is not chiefly a projection of their own fears.

There have been enough flaws in details of the administration's recent foreign-policy assessments to give thoughtful citizens pause. The Soviets apparently had not been able to tell whether the Korean Air Lines jetliner was a civilian aircraft before shooting it down. Warnings had been issued of an imminent terrorist bomb attack on the Marines in Lebanon. Evidence of plans for an ambitious Soviet-Cuban base on Grenada remains sketchy.

How individual Americans perceive the nature of the communist threat can be more a matter of conviction than of proof. But one can ask, if the current Soviet leadership were put down, would there be any change in the pattern of Soviet behavior? Many of the elements of behavior toward the individual which Americans find repugnant in the current regime are largely an extension of patterns that prevailed under the czars. The patterns of thought that lead to czarist-Marxism are more precisely the enemy. They are not likely to be defeated by arms.

As a practical matter, how the Reagan administration and Congress view the Soviets affects Washington's rhetoric and policies, and these directly affect the prospects of peace. Many Americans would feel more comfortable if American interests rather than Soviet skulduggery were more consistently cited as the basis for administration security plans.

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