The Reagan administration is deluding itself if it finds reinforcement in the thought that the anti- nuclear protests in Europe "do not represent a widespread view of West European citizens."
And the administration is quite simply missing the point if it seriously draws comfort from European polls that "consistently show strong majority support for NATO" or from the fact that West European governments "certainly share our concern over what's clearly the main threat to peace to Europe--the unceasing Soviet military buildup of recent years."
These citations from a recent White House statement contain, in each case, a certain measure of truth. The "peace marches" are no more than the cutting edge of far wider European sentiments. The polls do reveal general support for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Responsible government officials, by and large, do share the administration's concerns.
But when you have said all that, you have said nothing that bears on the most urgent threat to the defense of the Western alliance--the war of words now raging on the battleground of European public opinion, which centers quite specifically on the proposed deployment of theater nuclear forces (TNF) on European soil. And that war is being lost by the administration.
That was the unmistakable message from a gathering here the other day of a representative selection of former and current movers and shakers of NATO affairs. The occasion was the 20th anniversary conference of the Atlantic Institute, a privately financed, Paris-based study group whose mission is to monitor meticulously the condition of the ties that are supposed to bind the Western bloc.
You could read the three days of deliberations two ways: pessimistically, as a next-to-last gasp of gratitude for 30-odd years of no war in Europe; or optimistically, as a long gulp before pushing forward with new efforts to cope with NATO's strategic concerns. But there was no way you could read into what was said, publicly and privately here, any confidence in a White House reassurance from counselor Edwin Meese that Europe's anti-nuclear ferment "will not impact on our policies."
Start with an optimist, Manfred Worner, a leader of West Germany's opposition Christian Democratic party and chairman of the defense committee of the Bundestag. The "first and foremost" challenge to the alliance, he argues, is "internal," by which he means not the "clamoring major minority" but a "silent majority."
Worner does not have West Germany in mind when he speaks of a "nearly total failure of political leadership" to fit the deployment of TNF (American Pershing II and cruise missiles) into a coherent argument for the theory of deterrence. West Germany's Social Democratic government under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has led the campaign for TNF, over powerful opposition from within his party.
Italy is the only other NATO member to agree to TNF deployment on its soil. So Worner is talking mainly about the Netherlands (a positive wellspring of anti-nuclear sentiment), Belgium (where a recent poll showed 66 percent against TNF) and the Scandinavian countries (where opposition is absolute). And what he's saying is that even a NATO agreement to couple deployment with negotiations for Soviet removal of its TNF equivalent (the SS20) "cannot guarantee that a weapons system goes into service nowadays in the face of public pressure."
What's needed, Worner and others agree, is a harder European sales campaign--and a far softer American sell. That last point comes through a little muffled; few Europeans wish to give public offense to the new crowd in Washington. But, privately, a senior allied official voices a widely shared complaint over the public relations damage already done by the Reagan administration's early and repeated nuclear "saber-rattling."
The Soviets, he argues, are getting away with a stunningly successful "peace" campaign, while surrendering nothing of substance. "They are outsmarting Reagan by talking about peace while all Washington talks about is nuclear weapons," says one representative of a NATO member much in favor of TNF deployment. "You have lost the whole advantage you had from Afghanistan."
Americans on the scene concede as much. They hope the damage can be undone by a developing campaign in Europe to play down weaponry, while accentuating the positive of arms-control negotiations. But a French official worries that "when you do this under pressure it lacks conviction--it may be too late."
Schmidt's hold on power, meantime, is precarious, and West Germany is the key to TNF. His party could well repudiate his TNF support at its April conference. A rear-echelon report from the White House that all goes well at the front, in the battle for European opinion, is hardly calculated to help.