Everyone needs a hobby, and Teddy Gleason's hobby is stiffening U.S. foreign policy. He is head of the International Longshoremen's Association, and if the Reagan administration will not seriously restrict trade with the Russian and Polish regimes that are brutalizing Poland's labor movement, Gleason's men may do it, as they have before.
Gleason's foreign policy would be a distinct improvement on the government's. The government has paid $71 million to U.S. banks in lieu of interest payments Poland owes on loans the U.S. government guarantees. The payment was contrary to the law, which requires prior notice of default. Indeed, the purpose of this surreptitious payment was to prevent Poland from being declared in default, which would disrupt East-West trade and efforts to resuscitate d,etente.
"The United States," says Secretary of State Alexander Haig, "has made it clear that we will not do business as usual with either Poland or the Soviet Union while repression in Poland continues." Indeed, it is highly unusual to ignore U.S. law in order to subsidize Poland's martial law. To do otherwise, Haig says, would "bring down the temple of Western unity." Temple? All that would be brought down would be the earnings of some foolish bankers.
Eastern Europe's economies, which help sustain Russia's war economy, have received Western loans four times the value of all American aid to Western Europe during the Marshall Plan. Russia is so pressed for hard currency it is asking Japanese and West German companies to stretch out payments for goods shipped to Russia. Yet, as The Wall Street Journal says, the administration is "slipping into tacit collaboration with martial law by making it easier for the Soviet bloc to finance repression."
Even before the $71 million payment, administration policy regarding Poland was dismally congruent with the general Western response, which The Economist magazine says will be remembered as the Great Handwringing of 1981-82. Democrats are noticing the opportunity to pluck from the administration's palsied grasp the falling flag of national honor, and to do so by opposing bankers on behalf of a large ethnic group.
Haig has had his way with the U.S. response to Poland's crisis and has become a hostage to fortune. He says the crisis has just begun and America must hold all serious measures in reserve for when the going gets rough. But what additional suffering by Poland could provoke action from people who worship at the "temple" of allied unity?
In Cuba, Russia long ago repealed the Monroe Doctrine and now, with the recent arrival of heavy bombers, advanced fighters and 63,000 tons of war material, it is shredding whatever is left of whatever agreement was reached at the end of the missile crisis 20 years ago. Haig is adamant, and correct, concerning the need for difficult decisions about El Salvador and the source of much other violence, Cuba. But he seems oblivious to certain problems inherent in the conduct of foreign policy in a democracy--oblivious to the practical consequences of symbolism, and to the demoralizing symbolism of America's policy regarding Poland.
Always, but especially when the president is preoccupied with domestic policy, the nation needs a secretary of state with some of Dean Acheson's attributes--someone articulate, intellectual, elegant, ironic, at ease with himself, and justifiably confident of his ability to argue America's case before skeptical elites at home and abroad. The Achesonian combination of attributes is rare, but Haig's lack of them is a problem compounded by a policy toward Poland that is certain to confuse and paralyze the nation's will. In the early 1970s, the rhetoric and other atmospherics of d,etente--the "end of the Cold War," "an era of negotiation, not confrontation," accords on "principles of conduct"-- subverted public support for diplomatic and defense measures arduous enough to prevent d,etente from becoming what it became: a recipe for American retreat and an incitement to Russian expansionism. Haig then understood the problem and was a corrective force.
Today, administration policy regarding Poland is generating similar confusion and lassitude that will color defense and foreign policy debates generally. Haig argues that paying Poland's interest charges is really the "tough" policy because it keeps Poland under the burden of debt. That argument is entertainingly brassy, but it is too clever by half, which means it is not clever at all. Even if it were true, it would be politically unwise.
Someone who argues that subsidizing Poland's generals is toughness will find that when he turns to talking of other, more recognizable, forms of toughness in Central America, the public is not deferential, or comprehending, or even attentive.