WHEN South African forces hit three neighboring countries in May, vainly seeking anti-apartheid guerrillas, its officials made clear that it was nothing personal toward those nations' citizens, three of whom were killed in the raids. This is standard operating procedure nowadays. Governments are careful to reassure the people they are bombing, strafing, or napalming that they are all fine, upstanding human beings: ``It's just that zany leadership of yours and, well, we're awfully sorry, but a nation's got to do what a nation's got to do . . . Ka-boom!'' The United States said as much when it attacked Libya. Iran isn't mad at the Iraqis, it just wants the leader to step down. The Soviet Union is renowned for its unsolicited ``fraternal assistance'' to the good folks in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. In fact, the USSR insists that having its tanks rumble down the streets of a foreign capital is a happy time for almost everyone involved.
President Ronald Reagan -- that noted opponent of governments, including his own -- articulated this penchant for excoriating the vanguard while exonerating the masses in a Radio Liberty address beamed at Soviet listeners in June last year: ``Nothing would please us more than an improvement of well-being in the Soviet Union and increased cooperation by the people in both countries. We want peace and friendship; what we oppose are those Soviet official policies that threaten peace and human cooperation. But we don't blame the Russian people for those policies, since we know they are not responsible for them.''
In turn, the Kremlin doesn't blame you and me for Ronald Reagan (even though most of you and me put him where he is). All of which raises an obvious question: If the peoples of the world are as nice as pie, how come their leaders are always fussing and fighting? And how come officials keep threatening or bombing those swell folks they think the world of? Are we -- Soviets, American, Libyans, etc. -- good horses being ridden by bad riders, with often fatal results? If so, why don't we band together and make peace among ourselves and tell our alleged superiors to stick to paving roads and cutting ribbons at shopping center openings?
The notion that people would get along if it weren't for the brass upstairs finds a certain substantiation in instances when leaders of opposing nations have sat down and palavered like commoners. When such notorious rivals as President Reagan and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega met in a reception line at the UN last year, their animosity was replaced by polite, if stiff, smiles and the usual vacuous small talk. In all, it was a big improvement. Summits between the US and the USSR have always generated spurts of good feeling, usually referred to as ``the spirit'' of wherever they happened to have been held. Our man looks theirs squarely in the eye and says: ``Hey, let's do this again, come summer, over to our place on the Potomac.'' Mikhail Gorbachev replies, ``You're on, big guy; I'll bring the chips and dip.'' To which Reagan quips, ``Aw, why don't you leave Gromyko home.'' They both bust out laughing.
Less-noble feelings always reemerge after the two men have parted company. So why don't we insist they stay together until they really get to like each other? The Reagans could spend half the year in a dacha outside Moscow and the Gorbachevs could summer on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Instead of exceeding the limits of unratified arms treaties, Nancy and Raisa could race about the two capitals, having a spiraling but friendly credit card competition. Meanwhile, the boys could be fighting tooth and nail over who is going to pick up the tab for dinner -- or even who could dismantle a nuclear weapon the fastest.
It might not work. We may well have the leaders we deserve and no amount of elbow-rubbing will help. But it's worth a crack. The Reagans spend about half the year vacationing anyway, so they might as well do it on the Volga.
David Holahan is a free-lance writer.