Ronald Reagan had a dramatic experience this past week -- for which he had not been adequately prepared -- and an embarrassment. The dramatic experience was going to Reykjavik, Iceland, and being suddenly offered everything he has ever said he wanted from the Soviets in arms control if, in return, he would accept a 10-year freeze on taking his beloved Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) out of the laboratory.
The embarrassment was the exposure of the cover plan under which arms have been flowing to Mr. Reagan's favorite ``freedom fighters,'' the contras in Nicaragua, in apparent defiance of the United States Congress.
All the top people in Washington continued to deny that they had anything to do with sending to Nicaragua, loaded with guns, a plane that habitually works for the US Central Intelligence Agency, that flew for a company that the CIA once owned and continues to use, and that was piloted by a man who regularly flew for the CIA.
When the plane was shot down in Nicaragua with a talking ex-US Marine survivor, the affair passed outside the realm of ``plausible deniability.''
Mr. Reagan will never forget his Icelandic interlude. He went there expecting preliminary discussions perhaps leading to serious arms control talks at a later time. He found himself offered the two things he has long been asking for -- a drastic cut in long-range missiles plus removal of all intermediate-range Soviet missiles from Europe.
The offer was staggering in its scope and implications. A 50 percent cut in long-range missiles over a five-year period plus a prospect of total elimination of all strategic weapons in 10 years is precisely what Mr. Reagan has been proposing.
And one of NATO's deepest concerns has been a battery of Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range missiles mounted inside the Soviet Union and capable of hitting every capital in Western Europe. NATO wants relief from this menace.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered to scrap all his SS-20s except for 100 to be kept in Soviet Asia. The US would withdraw its Pershing 2 and cruise missiles from Europe except for 100 to be kept in the US.
In one sense, the Soviets booby trapped Mr. Reagan. Their offer went further than anyone in Washington had any idea they were prepared to go.
In another sense, they called his bluff. Does he really want to go down to zero strategic weapons? Obviously, no one in Washington has ever been serious about that.
Zero nuclear weapons for the US and the Soviet Union would leave them both naked in a world in which the British, French, and Chinese openly possess nuclear weapons, and India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, Argentina, and Brazil either have or may eventually get them.
And does the NATO alliance truly want to remove all intermediate-range missiles from Europe? Having US Pershing 2s and cruise missiles in Europe is part of the ``trip wire'' that ties the US to Western Europe's security. The NATO generals would like to have fewer SS-20s pointed at them, but not at the price of sending all of the US medium-range missiles back to the US.
The Soviets wanted, in return, to have SDI (or ``star wars'') kept in the laboratory for 10 years.
This became the sticking point. Mr. Reagan rejected the deal on the ground that to imprison SDI inside the laboratory for 10 years would kill it.
That would be true if Congress refused to fund an operation restricted for 10 years to the laboratory. But would Congress do so? It constantly puts up money for long-term drawing-board military projects.
Besides, some experts on SDI say that it will take 10 years, at least, to find out whether there is anything worth taking out of the laboratory.
The essential fact of the affair is that Mr. Reagan and his advisers were so taken by surprise that they let an interesting offer slip past them -- at least in its initial form. Had they been flexible and quick enough in their own thinking, they could have said something like, ``Gosh, this is all very interesting. Let's hand it over to our experts and talk further when we next meet.''
They were not quick enough or flexible enough. They felt trapped by the suddenness and comprehensiveness of the proposal.
All of this left Mr. Gorbachev with a big juicy propaganda plus.
He offered everything Mr. Reagan has been proposing. He asked in return a slow-down on SDI, which will probably be imposed by events anyway.
It was a brilliant diplomatic maneuver. It boxed Mr. Reagan into the position of having blocked what, to most observers, must seem to have been an unusual opportunity to move away from the next round in the nuclear arms race.
But it also had one worthwhile aspect. The Soviet offer is on the table. There is already a second round of reexamination. There is every reason to think that the experts will go to work and try to find a formula under which the propaganda positions exploited at Reykjavik can be converted into serious bargaining positions.
Meanwhile, it seems clear that the Soviets are genuinely worried about SDI and are ready and willing to pay a high price to slow it down.
This is a time for a new beginning. A serious start on another round of arms control will almost certainly rise out of the debris of American unpreparedness at Reykjavik.