The fact that Ronald Reagan is talking to Mikhail Gorbachev in a comfortable house in Iceland this weekend tells us one big and important piece of news: The longest, hardest-fought behind-the-scenes tussle over United States foreign policy in the Reagan administration is over. The winner is George Shultz; the loser is Richard Perle. Mr. Shultz has been the champion of those in the US government who believe that keeping up a dialogue with the Soviets and doing such business as may be possible with them is in the general interest of the long-term welfare of the US.
Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, has been the champion of others in the Reagan political constituency who oppose a running dialogue or trying to do any business with the Soviets. They favor maintaining an arm's-length attitude while the US wages economic and ideological cold war against the Soviet state.
The tussle between these two rival factions dominated the foreign policy debate from the first day of the Reagan administration. Individuals have come and gone. Alexander Haig, the original Reagan secretary of state, was a hard-liner. George Shultz, who took over on General Haig's departure, is more of a pragmatist.
Richard Burt, formerly assistant secretary of state for European affairs, was once the champion of those who favor doing business with the Soviets. He gave up the fight when Richard Perle seemed to win the battle over whether or not President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'') was negotiable. Mr. Burt, who believed a worthwhile arms control agreement was possible and that SDI should be negotiable, took refuge from the Washington storm in the noncontroversial comfort of the US Embassy in Bonn.
This week, President Reagan worked overtime trying to reassure his hawkish constituents that he is not going soft on the Soviets.
On Monday, several right-wing leaders were summoned to the White House. Mr. Reagan made a reassuring speech. He promised that he would sign no arms control agreement at Reykjavik this weekend, that he would push Mr. Gorbachev on ``human rights'' (meaning more exit visas for Jews), and that he would keep in mind the ``freedom fighters'' of ``Afghanistan, Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.'' He asked his ``old supporters who have voiced doubts'' to remember that he goes to Reykjavik: (1) ``without illusions,'' (2) with a ``commitment to world freedom,'' and (3) ``from a position of strength.''
The Monday meeting with his troubled and unhappy hawks was followed by a double session Tuesday afternoon. First, he had a long private talk with Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov and his wife, newly arrived in the US as part of the resolution of the Nicholas Daniloff affair. Then he led the Orlovs to a gathering of religious and civil rights leaders. There he repeated his assurances that at this weekend's mini-summit he will remember that an improvement in Soviet performance on human rights is crucial to any future summits.
Such efforts to comfort and reassure his hawkish constituents are now a routine part of the President's preparations for carrying on dialogue with Gorbachev. Before heading for Geneva last November for the first meeting between the two superpower leaders, Reagan held similar lengthy reassurance sessions to promise that he wouldn't go soft when he talked with the Soviet leader.
But the essential fact is that the President did leave Washington on Thursday and did go to Reykjavik for talks with Mikhail Gorbachev -- and all this in spite of the Daniloff affair.
The framing of Mr. Daniloff in a Moscow park in an unusually clumsy and blatant hostage grab by the KGB, the Soviet secret police, provided Reagan with the perfect opportunity to escape from summitry with the Soviets -- had he wanted a way out. The hawks were overjoyed at the opportunity. They were furious with Reagan for not using it. Columnist George Will called Reagan soft and said it made Jimmy Carter look like a real President.
The fact is that instead of using the Daniloff affair to get out of summitry, the President used it as a springboard to the Reykjavik meeting. He is on the way to a new dialogue. He has ideas about new agreements to be reached with the Soviets when the real summit comes.
Reykjavik is of course merely a way station on the road to a real summit. Mr. Reagan has settled the long, bruising argument in Washington, and this preliminary meeting serves mainly to affirm that fact. He has decided to try to do some business with the men of Moscow. He wants an arms control agreement.
Richard Perle is quoted by friends as saying that he is ready to retire because he is satisfied that the President is committed to SDI and will not treat it as negotiable at the summit. But in arms control circles, there is little doubt that the President is now ready to put some restraints on SDI.
Nor is there much doubt that the broad outlines are already sketched out for two types of arms control agreements. The talk is of cutting back on US Pershing 2 missiles in Europe in return for dismantling of Soviet SS-20 missiles. There is also talk of new limits on strategic warheads.
All of this could have been blocked by the Daniloff affair. But Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev went to immense trouble to find a resolution that saved face for both of them, that permitted them to proceed to the Reykjavik meeting and, presumably, from there to the second real summit.
This represents a decisive defeat for those who have wanted a sustained state of hostility between Moscow and Washington, rather than a dialogue and search for areas in which agreement might be possible. It is a historic moment in that the President has opted for accommodation rather than confrontation with the Russians.