Reagan can still make breakthroughs in Mideast, arms talks

HOW like network programming life is becoming. Americans face two big miniseries - ``White House Family Fallout'' and ``The Boesky Tapes'' - running opposite each other in the same time slot. In real life, both affairs are quite serious. But as transformed in Washington and on the tube, both the White House and Ivan Boesky's exurban mansion teeter on the brink of becoming South Fork or Falconcrest. On the evening news the aftermath of the Iran arms deal, in particular, has begun to sound like one of those soaps in which petty intriguers scheme and bicker around a partly oblivious patriarch. It's hard to deny that the Reagan administration has provided rich material for this script. But that doesn't excuse the critics for getting diverted into personalities and often forgetting the crucial questions.

There are at least two big ones:

First, was it ever wise for Washington (and Jerusalem) to follow a policy designed essentially to keep Iran and Iraq bleeding each other to exhaustion?

Second, are the Reagan administration and its loyal opposition going to let the next two years go to waste as far as arms control and commerce with the Soviets are concerned?

On the Mideast, many experts hoped that the Reagan team had learned from its mistakes over Lebanon. In its second year the administration appeared about to launch a major effort to set Israel and the Palestinians bargaining face to face. Instead, Alexander Haig and his successor, George Shultz, were drawn into the whirlpool of Lebanon - first backing, then partly supplanting Isaeli forces. That US action led directly to the series of anguishing hostage crises involving radicals in Lebanon inspired by the vengeful Ayatollah and local revolutionary goals. While American policy in the Mediterranean sector of the Mideast had thus swung from peacemaking to military intrusion, US policy in the Gulf sector supposedly remained rigidly neutral between Iran and Iraq.

Critics in Washington and among America's allies fault Mr. Reagan for (1) breaking his pledge of not bargaining with hostage takers and (2) breaching his own policy of neutrality and arms embargo in the Iran-Iraq war.

Both criticisms are valid. The swing from neutrality to involvement via clandestine missile shipments to Iran was as unwise as the switch from Arab-Israeli peacemaking in 1982 to active involvement in Lebanon thereafter. An argument can be made, in fact, that the US and its Western allies might have done more in recent years to try to nudge Iran and Iraq toward a de facto cease-fire - perhaps an unacknowledged one.

The usual argument against such peacemaking intrusion is that if the time is not ripe, it will do no good, and perhaps even do harm. If that is so, the US would at least have done better had it stuck with a non-activist policy, as it has lately been doing in the Mideast's Mediterranean sector.

Moving now to the superpower/arms control front, let's look at the argument that what you see in the White House is the lamest duck since ... well, Jimmy Carter. In essence, the thesis is that the Iceland summit, later deadlocked meetings with the Russians, Democratic control of Congress, and the weakening effect of the abortive Tehran deal all mean that Mikhail Gorbachev wants to hold off bargaining till after Reagan is gone.

Neither Reagan nor his domestic opponents should concede that. In this decade, we have already lost some five years because of a previous US lame duck and three barely propped up Politburo ducks. Why should either side let the next 18 months or so slip away?

Last spring, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Dante Fascell went to Moscow to tell Mr. Gorbachev there was no point in waiting for a change in the White House. Even if a Democrat were to succeed to the presidency, Mr. Fascell asserted, the negotiating policy would not change substantially. That logic still holds true.

Beyond that, Gorbachev will not strengthen his hand at home or abroad if he cannot shift resources from military production to civilian (and military) factory retooling for the high-tech, automated plant era.

Gorbachev goes to India this week to try to close a trade gap that is not as large as the US-Japan gap but must worry him a lot. It could get worse if technology-minded Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi persists in buying Western production systems instead of Soviet ones.

If Gorbachev goes to Japan next year as planned, he will see firsthand how far behind Soviet factories are. He is savvy enough to understand this already, but the impact of seeing highly automated Japanese plants will no doubt jolt him further. He is not likely to be able to strike major barter or credit deals in Tokyo. He will need hard currency. And that means avoiding the cost of a new arms race. Finally, somewhere in the reports reaching the Politburo there must be an analysis of a recent shift in the Western machine tool picture. Japan has just agreed to limit its machine tool exports to the US. What's more, October figures show American machine tool production up by more than 30 percent for the month.

Gorbachev has based his grand strategy for economic growth on retooling Soviet industry. He now faces a world in which Japan, the US, the Pacific Rim nations, Western Europe, and even India and China are modernizing plants more rapidly. Facing those facts, he just may be willing to overlook Reagan's lame-duck status and pursue an arms bargain.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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