Mixed messages

PRESIDENT Ronald Reagan intended his speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, honoring the 40th anniversary of Germany's surrender to the Allies, as the grand rhetorical moment of his post-reelection tour abroad. That was how it was designed for months. The address had its high moments. V-E Day, as the President observed, did send a thrill of joy through the free world from the Arc de Triomphe to Times Square. After a war in which 40 million died, 40 years of peace deserve celebration. Europe's role as the cultural touchstone of Western democracy merited the President's idealistic tribute to Europe as a great cathedral that ``evolves as it is created'' over centuries, ``with each generation adding its own vision.''

The President's reminder that ``aggression feeds on appeasement'' was at once a flashback to Allied faltering at the threshhold of World War II and an introduction to his theme of the day, the need to resist the Soviet menace. It brought much applause. But it also struck a note of dissonance with his other theme of the moment, a promise ``the United States will make a steady, sustained effort to reduce tensions and solve problems in its relations with the Soviet Union.''

The Strasbourg speech showed the administration still undecided in its basic approach to the Soviet Union. The very day before the President spoke, Richard Perle, the assistant secretary of defense, was telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that in his ``personal opinion'' the US should end the SALT II guidelines and not renew them. The President, oddly enough if encouraging a spirit of mutual interest, did not even mention the Soviet contribution to bringing the war to an end. But he did speak of a ``one, free Europe'' in coming decades in which ``all Europeans, from Moscow to Lisbon, will be able to travel without a passport and the free flow of people and ideas will include the other half of Europe.'' One cannot be sure whether the Soviets would view such a free flow as an inducement or a threat.

The President drew hoots over his Nicaragua policy when he mentioned Central America, and when he asserted ``We do not aspire to impose our system on anyone.'' On the eve of the Strasbourg speech, Italy, one of the Reagan administration's staunchest allies in matters like stationing missiles in Europe, felt compelled to declare it would ignore the Reagan economic embargo of Nicaragua and honor instead Italy's $25 million power- plant project in that country. The embargo, announced in Europe, has drawn no support whatever. Only El Salvador has taken the American President's side. Like Italy's President Bettino Craxi, France's Franois Mitterrand, too, had been a fairly reliable supporter; but Mitterrand drew the line against Reagan's wishes on the crucial trade and monetary issues.

The fact is, the administration did not take into account, when designing its European adventure, either the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev, a more vigorous antagonist who could compete for attention, the disintegration of its Nicaragua policy in Congress, or the separate political and cultural interests of its European partners. The President could not have been happy on visiting Spain to have to countenance a withdrawal of some American troops from Spain as the price for keeping that country in NATO.

If one purpose of the trip was to heighten the American President's position in dealings with the Kremlin, the mixture of messages and receptions in Europe could not have been encouraging. The mood in Moscow has been bullish. The Soviets feel they will be able to act in many spheres with or without agreement with Washington. The risk for the Reagan administration, if it does not focus more consistently on the substance of policy, is that the President could be ignored or maneuvered around.

The European trip was, withal, a confusion of themes. We felt, at the outset, that the White House was trying to do too much, in too short a time, in too many places -- remembering the war, tuning Western economic policy, shoring up allied resistance to the Soviets and enticing them to negotiation, all the while sending messages back home to various political constituencies. The theater of presidential travel, even if without dissention or flaws in execution, may not be enough to compete with this new Soviet leadership.

Peace is still the grand issue of our time, as it was 40 years ago. The lapse in war has only enhanced the stakes for peace.

When the Reagan entourage reaches Andrews Air Force base this weekend for a deserved rest, it will find itself again in search of a stronger central hand in charge of policy.

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