President Carter's bid for support from a blue-ribbon committee promoting a firm stance against the Russians collapsed when he began arguing that defense spending cannot go up because public opinion is against it.
"No, no, no," Paul Nitze was overheard murmuring. He is a former deputy secretary of defense and one of eight prestigious private citizens summoned to the White House for an unannounced meeting with the President Aug. 5. An early Carter-for-President supporter. Democrat Nitze is now a critic of Carter's defense policies. He and others present were dismayed to hear the President echo the dubious judgment of his national security subordinates about what the American people will or will not accept.
"Paul," the President complained to Nitze, "would you please let me finish?" That mood of exasperation dominated the one-hour meeting (twice the time scheduled) that left everybody ill at ease.
The White House press office falsely announced that Carter had met with "a group of leaders from private industry." In fact, he had invited members of the Committee on the Present Danger, formed to advocate a more muscular negotiating stance.
Democrats included Nitze, former Under Secretary of State Eugene Rostow, former Treasury Secretary H. H. (Joe) Fowler, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Lane Kirkland and retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt. Republicans were former Deputy Defense Secretary David parkard, former United Nations delegate Rita Hauser and a non-member of the committee, former Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird (who uncharacteristically said not one word during the hour).
The meeting was arranged by presidential aide Hamilton Jordan, whose multiplying duties include guiding a strategic arms limitation treaty through Senate ratification. Increasingly involved in foreign policy, Jordan is worried about opposition to the President by defense-oriented Democrats belonging to the Committee on the Present Danger.
Carter made clear he did not like the committee's paper "Where We Stand on SALT," which criticizes the administration's policy. His repeated refrain: I am the President trying to do his best and achieve goals we all agree on: why don't you support me instead of picking on me?
Rostow and Nitze explained the committee's position. But Joe Fowler, past-master of the honeyed phrase, gave the political response: this was a bipartisan group whose members had served many Presidents, had criticized many Presidents and were committed to the nation's security. In circuitous terms, what Fowler was saying amounted to this: Don't be so touchy, Mr. President.
Instead of being won over by the Carter charm, the committee members left worried on three counts: Frist, that the President seemed overeager about getting an arms-control agreement; second, that he accepts the dogma that Americans won't spend for their own defense; and third, that after six months in the White House, Jimmy Carter shows signs of the same sensitivity to criticism that has proved so costly to his recent predecessors.
Two imminent decisions by the Carter administration saying "no" to Israel are certain to be interpreted by pro-Israeli congressmen as political pressure resulting from Israel's total refusal to accept President Carter's Mideast peace plan.
One decision would deny Israel what it very much wants: co-production rights to the F-16, the new U.S. super-fighter. The other would cut Israel's request for 250 F-16s to a mere 50 to 75, on grounds that Israel's air force needs no more to maintain its superiority over the Arabs. But Israel is expected to use its influence on Capitol Hill to change the administration's mind.
The decision against giving Israel co-production rights is partly based on objections from the four NATO allies of the United States that already have been given co-production rights: Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. To admit Israel into this select circle would anger these countries (of which two, Belgium and the Netherlands, will actually assemble the new aircraft).
Officials privately deny that the F-16 decisions reflect the real unhappiness over Carter's failure to bring Israel into line with his own Mideast peace plans.
The President has repeatedly promised not to exert that kind of pressure on Israel. Nevertheless the F-16 rebuffs will give Israel a pretext to make that charge quietly among powerful friends in Congress. That will lead to a congressional demand for an administration policy closer to Isreal's liking.