QUESTION FOR the American people: Which of the following best describes current U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union?
A. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan poses the greatest threat to world peace since World War II and has been a brutal exercise in aggression and the attempted subjugation of a small, neighboring country. The United States not only condemns the Soviet action, but intends to punish the Russians for their aggression and will repel further Soviet moves in the Persian Gulf region by whatever means necessary, including military force.
B. The United States has no desire to return to the Cold War, let alone a real war, and recognizes that its relationship with the Soviets has cooperative as well as competitive aspects. In particular, the United States remains committed to arms control negotiations and sees the strategic arms limitation treaty as in the best interests of both countries.
The correct answer, judging by the words of the man charged with articulating American foreign policy, is both. In the two months since Soviet troops stormed into Afghanistan, President Carter, in various forums and ways, has said all of the above.
Moreover, the president and his advisers argue that there is nothing inconsistent in these positions. Soviet-American relations have always been subtle and complex, and even when he was using his harshest rhetoric to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter never said he was ready to go to war with the Russians.
The only trouble is that, if you weren't listening carefully or are not tuned in to the fine points of foreign policy making, you may not have fully understood that.
From the beginning of the Carter administration, the president has been accused of giving out seemingly contradictory signals, much to the confusion of the American people and U.S. allies. White House aides, naturally, take great exception to this assertion, noting that there are usually many sides to all of the issues Carter must deal with and speak about.
But it is a president's job to articulate a view of the world and a direction for the country in as clear and understandable a fashion as possible. It is a part of the job Jimmy Carter has never proved to be very adept at, and it has cost him.
The record of the administration is littered with examples.
One of the first things Carter did as president was to declare "the moral equivalent of war" on the nation's energy problems. He stressed the necessity for sacrifice by all segments of American society and said there was no alternative if the nation was to avert "an impending catastrophe."
But within a matter of days, the talk of sacrifice was forgotten amid a flood of optimistic projections on how the energy program could be a boon to the average consumer. Within a matter of months, the energy proposals were hopelessly bogged down in Congress and the president had little to say about it.
Three years later, this tendency seems not to have changed.
"Let our position be absolutely clear," Carter said in his State of the Union address to Congress Jan. 23. "Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America. And such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."
This was called by some the "Carter doctrine," and it seemed perfectly clear. It was a unilateral declaration of U.S. policy, without reference to other nations, and was backed up with an explicit threat to use American military force to make it stick.
But a week after he made this declaration, the president was asked in an interview whether the U.S. has the military power to support such a doctrine.
"Obviously, we don't intend, and never have claimed to have the ability unilaterally to defeat any threat to that region with ease," he answered. "What we called for was an analysis by all of those nations who are there who might be threatened . . . But I don't think it would be accurate for me to claim that at this time, or in the future, we expect to have enough military strength and enough military presence there to defend the region unilaterally, absent the kind of coooperation that I have described to you."
In the same State of the Union address to Congress, Carter said, "I have determined that the Selective Service System must now be revitalized." He called for the resumption of registration for the draft, said he "hoped" that military conscription would not become necessary but added that "we must be prepared for that possibility."
But in the weeks since that speech, as criticism of the registration proposal has mounted, the president has shifted his emphasis. Gone from most of his public pronouncements are references to the need for preparedness, and in their place are repeated assertions that "I see no need at this time to move toward an actual draft."
In the meantime, the registration proposal continues to sink into deeper trouble in Congress while its principal advocate continues to stress that it will probably never have to be used anyway.
Now the administration appears headed for what could be an even more confusing set of foreign policy signals.
In a speech to the American Legion Feb. 19, Carter publicly resurfaced the question of the SALT II treaty, which was withdrawn from Senate consideration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The president reaffirmed his support for the treaty, and a few days later Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance confirmed reports that the administration was exploring the possibility of resuming the effort for Senate approval of the accord in late spring or early summer.
This raises the possibility that, come summer, the Carter administration will be pushing for approval of an arms control treaty with the Soviets at the same time it is leading a worldwide effort to boycott the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.
To the makers of foreign policy, this makes perfect sense. The Olympic boycott is a punitive measure, meant as a slap at the Soviets for the Afghan invasion. The SALT treaty was withdrawn from Senate consideration not as punishment, but because approval of the accord was impossible in the post-invasion atmosphere. The treaty was never seen as a favor to the Soviets, but as a measure that is important to U.S. security. a
But it is one thing to make such distinctions -- and another to explain to the public why the summer versions of Eric Heiden and the American hockey heroes should be denied their dreams of Olympic competition while it is perfectly fine for the United States to sign a treaty with an aggressor nation. Certainly, nothing in Carter's record suggests an ability to make that case in a clear and persuasive manner.
As a candidate four years ago, Carter demonstrated a wondrous capacity for fuzziness. He could, when the situation called for it, seem to be on several sides of an issue at the same time. That ability served him well as a political candidate. It is far less an asset when he is speaking for the nation.
The issues a president faces are many sided, and his powers far more limited than generally assumed. But one of the great powers a president retains is a national platform from which to explain and persuade, what Theodore Roosevelt called the "bully pulpit."
Jimmy Carter came to office determined to use that pulpit to achieve his objectives. Three years later, with Congress picking over yet another set of energy proposals, he still has not mastered that art form.