IN Reagan rhetoric, the President of the United States is ready and willing to take punitive action when a terrorist is identified and can be hit without hurting bystanders. He tried it in Libya, not quite successfully. Some bystanders were hurt. In practice, when the Israelis identified Syria as practicing state-sponsored terrorism, the Reagan White House declared that the United States did not have ``any independent or conclusive proof'' of Syrian complicity.
Here we have a clear example of something that has been frequent throughout the story of American foreign policy -- a gap between declaratory and operational policy.
There is nothing new about the gap. John Foster Dulles used to preach a ``rollback of the Iron Curtain.'' His preaching earned him a reputation for brinkmanship and terrified the Western European allies. In practice, Mr. Dulles was one of America's most cautious secretaries of state, who seldom walked within a mile of any brink.
A practical reason explains the gap between Mr. Reagan's precept about terrorism and his selective practice. The Soviets are not concerned about Libya. They are concerned about Syria. Mr. Reagan knew that Moscow would do nothing more than utter a mild bleep about his bombs on Libya. He knows that Syria is loaded with Soviet weapons of current model and with some 2,500 Russians, many in uniform.
Mr. Reagan preaches what is called the ``Reagan Doctrine.'' It has not been spelled out in formal texts. It is generally understood to mean a policy of seeking to roll back Soviet influence from the places that were added to Moscow's list of clients and dependents during the Brezhnev years. This seems to mean Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, and Nicaragua.
The above has special relevance right now. Mr. Reagan is asking Congress for $35 billion more for defense than the Congress is willing to provide. The difference raises questions in the minds of ordinary citizens. Do we really need all the guns Mr. Reagan says we need? Is Congress playing fast and loose with national security, or would it be safe to settle for the lower figure?
We would certainly need everything that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger wants, and probably as much more as he dreams about, if the Reagan Doctrine were to be pursued literally and vigorously as national policy.
To challenge and push back the Russians whenever they show up anywhere in the world would require decisive military superiority. The US has not had such superiority since the Eisenhower-Kennedy years.
To try to regain it would mean a massive arms race, which would certainly distort and seriously damage the American economy and could get us into a disastrous war with Russia.
Congress is not ready to allow Mr. Reagan to spend on arms as much money as it would take to sustain the kind of forward foreign policy the Reagan doctrine would require. It is ready and willing to spend more than enough to sustain a policy of competitive but managed coexistence.
In the back rooms of Washington, a lot of serious foreign policy workers have been busy of late trying to define the terms of a foreign policy alternative to the Reagan Doctrine.
The doctrine has been defined and promoted for the most part by people who call themselves new conservatives. What do old conservatives think? Essentially they think that it is time for the US to tailor its foreign policies to the realities of today's world.
One reality is that the US, which turned out half the world's gross product during the first decade after World War II, now accounts for about a fifth of world production. US commitments around the world are too often based on a memory of times gone by.
The old conservatives, who are doing most of the new thinking about foreign policy, say it's time to reduce American commitments to match America's changed economic status. This is a swing of the pendulum away from the universal role preached by the new conservatives of early Reagan days.
Mr. Reagan's pragmatism about Syria does not say that he is a secret ``old'' conservative under ``new'' conservative clothing. But the pressures now bearing on him are trying to push him that way.