Obviously, Gramm-Rudman is going to force an agonizing reappraisal of our needs and priorities for domestic programs and national security. It's equally obvious that the infighting in the executive branch and Congress will be ferocious, and that nobody can tell you exactly what the domestic social and political repercussions will be.
But the implications for foreign policy are somewhat easier to foresee. Just as some retrenchment is in store for a whole range of domestic programs, so there will inevitably be less money available for defense. But there's a difference: The effect of the former will be to reinforce Ronald Reagan's domestic doctrine; the effect of the latter on his grand designs for national security will be exactly the opposite. It will be to undermine, raise doubts, weaken his hand.
Precisely because appearances weigh heavily in the exercise of U.S. power and influence around the world, the adverse impression conveyed in a general way by Gramm-Rudman will matter almost as much as its nuts-and- bolts impact on defense. Already, administration officials are readying the counter-argument that we can somehow suffer through Gramm-Rudman without an agonizing reappraisal of foreign policy ends and means.
But unless you really believe that Congress will wipe out several dozen domestic programs in order to meet the deficit target of $144 billion for the next fiscal year -- or that Ronald Reagan will do a 180-degree turn on tax increases -- Gramm-Rudman requires that something be whacked out of almost every one of the 3,220 separate "accounts" in the defense budget over the next three years.
If that's the way it turns out, whether we are talking about the view from North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels or the view from the Kremlin, Ronald Reagan's bright picture of an America "back and standing tall" will inevitably give way to a different perception. America may claim to be back, talking big and standing tall. But America will be seen to be standing, or wriggling, in a fiscal straitjacket.
And why not? Mikhail Gorbachev may have sounded downright primitive in the ignorance he is supposed to have displayed at the Geneva summit about the United States. But he is surely not deaf to the debate that raged over Gramm- Rudman, and still less are the Western Europeans. Phrases such as "march of folly" or "the silliest thing if it weren't so tragic" or "an act of desperation" cannot have gone unnoticed. Nor can the verdict of Sen. Pat Moynihan (D- N.Y.): "Gramm-Rudman is a suicide pact. We are entering into an agreement with the administration to dismantle the defenses of the United States."
Now some of those are partisan words. But while the issue was still in doubt, the official spokesman for Ronald Reagan's Pentagon said passage of Gramm-Rudman would "send a message of comfort to the Soviet Union." Asked about it after the president had signed the bill, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger struggled manfully to put the best face on this "message of comfort." He conceded that a major cutback in defense spending could be read by the Soviets as "a lack of will." He did not exactly go out of his way to minimize the potential damage to U.S. security.
But he is gambling that his losses in the current fiscal year (when defense spending will be held to no more, at best, than zero percent real growth) can be recouped in later years. As for the way the Soviets will read America's will to defend its own interests, his answer is that the United States can point to five years of steady improvement in its defenses.
Maybe so. But not even the staunchest backers of Gramm-Rudman would claim it to be a show of strength. On the contrary, it was defended as the only alternative to budgetary madness that was driving us to ever more murderous deficits. The principal figures in Congress and in the executive branch seemed to be saying in a desperate burst of bipartisanship, "Stop us, before we kill again."
That is not the way that a superpower, with a claim to a leading role on the world's stage, is expected to be talking about its fiscal affairs. It is perhaps in this sense that the budget amendment may make the heaviest demands on the way we handle foreign policy. What will be required of the administration is a genuine recognition that national solvency is an element in national security. That means recognizing limits on American power.
It means knowing that big talk can backfire if the impression gets around that we are unable to put our money where our mouth is -- in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, or in an arms buildup that is supposed to be a prerequisite to bargaining from strength on arms control.