President Carter put his finger on part of the problem when he told Frank Reynolds of ABC News the other day that he had changed his views of Russia "more drastically" in the "past week" than in the "previous two and a half years." Like all amateurs, Carter tends to personalize foreign policy.
He enjoyed a certain rapport with Leonid Brezhnev, and assumed relations with Russia were on a good track. So he was surprised when the Russians invaded Afghanistan and chagrined when Brezhnev lied to him on the hotline.
But the president was not alone in focusing on the hostages in Iran while Moscow poured troops across the Afghan border. He has his little helpers -- namely the senior foreign policy figures.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is the weightiest by far. He is experienced, intelligent, articulate, prudent and patient. He commands widespread trust and affection, and is a good negotiator.
He shares the lawyer's habit of taking items case by case. That professional deformation did little harm until he acquired intellectual baggage in the last part of the Johnson administration and thereafter as a leading lawyer on Wall Street. He returned to Washington filled to the brim with the philosophic assumptions of New York's liberal elite. He has been highly sensitive to the wrongs done by the United States in the past. He has cared about knitting up relations with Africa and Cuba and Vietnam and with the Palestinians. He has been so determined to resist pressure from the American hawks that he has lost sight of the Soviet bent for power politics.
Normally, the secretary of defense would have righted the balance. Harold Brown's forte, however, is technology. He has used his master over hardware to prevent the military-industrial complex from backing the president into a corner. But in the course of giving the president and the secretary of state live policy options, Brown has inadvertently shielded them from the most acute concerns of the military professionals.
There remains the president's national security adviser. Almost alone in the Carter administration, Zbigniew Brzesinski tries to formulate coherent views of the world as a whole. Nobody would question his familiarly with the power goals, and treacherous tactics, of the Soviet Union.
But, as Sally Quinn pointed out in this newspaper the other day, Brzezinski has alienated most of the officials at the Pentagon and State Department. In the absence of bureaucratic allies, he lacks the one thing a presidential assistant needs most -- operational reach.
His brilliance, moreover, runs toward the rhetorical. It is typical that he came up with the label "arc of crisis" for the zone of insecurity around Iran a year ago, and then, having found a catch phrase, did little to improve this country's capacity to operate in the area. By his own account, Brzezinski is the most overruled presidential adviser in White House history. He imposes no real discipline on the president, and his true function is to let Carter do whatever he wants, and then pronounce it "high strategy."
In those conditions, Jimmy Carter's sudden discovery with Moscow plays hardball is no big deal. Changes have to be made in the basic outlook of the administration, not merely in the president's mind.
Nor do the actions and comments taken, as a kind of convulsive reaction over the past few days, signify much. It means little to postpone Senate debate on the arms control treaty with Russia for now; or to talk of arming Pakistan; or to think about trade restrictions; or even to consider pulling out of the Olympics; or to berate the Soviet Union at the meeting of signatories to the Helsinki pact, which is coming up in Madrid.
The true test will be where this country stands six months from now when the Russians will, undoubtedly, be back on the track of peace offensive. What counts is whether this country will then have established a full-time naval presence in the Indian Ocean , and bases around the Persian Gulf, and some kind of political capacity in Iran. What counts is whether the Europeans continue to move forward with improving missile strength. What counts most of all perhaps is whether the American public has been alerted, not -- as through most of the Carter years -- tranquilized. For the task now is to lay the ground for a long-term commitment, which will find this country replicating in the Mideast and the Persian Gulf the immense effort that won the first, or European, phase of the continuing struggle against Soviet power.