THE failure of the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Iceland underscores not just the weaknesses of this administration but of the American political process. The United States prides itself in being at the forefront of technology and in being the embodiment of alert, well-informed self-government. The current reality is closer to the forecast of Alexis de Tocqueville some 150 years ago: Democracy is vulnerable to rule by demagogues supported by a well-meaning but poorly informed public. This vulnerability is the more dangerous in the nuclear age because of the inability of this President to cultivate a deep understanding of technical issues and the willingness of the public and many in Congress to go along with Mr. Reagan -- even when they believe his course to be wrong. The ``star wars'' project that has dominated US military planning and US-Soviet arms control deliberations for more than three years now started out as a presidential whim -- but it has unfortunately turned into a presidential obsession. Reagan's espousal of a shift from deterrence to defense constitutes the most profound change in US military policy since Hiroshima. It also throws into question most of the arms accords reached with Moscow in the last generation. But this revolution in America's military policy took place almost overnight, with virtually no detailed consideration of its prospects and dangers by the Pentagon, by the President's scientific advisers, or by Washington's allies in Europe and Asia. One would have expected that such a shift would have occurred only after the most painstaking assessment of its feasibility and likely results; instead it came after a few superficial discussions between Reagan and Dr. Edward Teller, only one of the many experts who should have been consulted.
Star wars was not put forward and tested as a trial balloon. It emerged rather as a mandate. The President spoke his will and the entire bureaucracy leaped into action, writing justifications and offering contracts. Though polls show that most physicists do not believe the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to be feasible, many companies and entrepreneurs have jumped at the chance to win major star-wars funding. The man in the street can be forgiven if he accepts the proposition: Why not look for a system to protect us from missile attack and then share this knowledge with the other side?
But the Soviets do not look lightly on a program to undermine the mutual deterrence network that has ensured peace over the years. They see that the US has refused to ratify several of the arms accords signed in the 1970s; they read that Washington now plans to exceed the limits on offensive arms stipulated in the SALT II Treaty signed in 1979; they see that the Reagan administration intends to test components of star wars in violation of that most important arms control accord -- the 1972 treaty limiting ballistic missile defense.
In some ways the SDI generates a greater disservice to US security than the Maginot Line did for France in the 1930s. Both defense systems were costly and could easily be outflanked by a determined foe. But the Maginot Line was not provocative to Germany and did not create a stumbling block in arms negotiations. By contrast star wars, unless restricted to laboratory research, promises to obstruct serious progress in arms control and superpower relations. If deployed, SDI would probably lead to an increase in Soviet offensive systems, perhaps even to thoughts of a preemptive first strike.
Optimists reply that SDI is the tool by which Washington has compelled the Soviets to negotiate seriously. They say also that Washington's powerful levers and negotiating from strength may still extract from Moscow a truly far-reaching arms accord. A more realistic appraisal holds that the Soviets have been eager for serious arms control for years; after all, it was Moscow that wanted SALT II to become a ratified treaty, legally binding on both sides. Specialists on the Soviet Union know that party leader Mikhail Gorbachev must deal with domestic critics who set limits on how far he can go in arms negotiations. For more than a year the Kremlin has held back from nuclear tests while the US continues its testing. It seems doubtful that Mr. Gorbachev can make concessions in arms negotiations if Washington insists on continuing tests as well as research into SDI systems.
Many of Reagan's whims have been far from conservative. His supply-side economics and military spending have helped to make America a debtor nation. David Stockman has revealed how little realism went into the Reagan budget proposals. Tax reform may prove to be, like star wars, another piece of show business without real promise. In these and other cases the President may be taking us from the frying pan into the fire -- while most of the public nods or applauds.
Have we reached a point where we want a leader with a ``lite'' touch? If so, we will continue to get the decisions we deserve -- government by whim.
Walter C. Clemens is professor of political science at Boston University and adjunct research fellow at the Harvard Center for Science and International Affairs.