Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is pressing President Carter to name William W. Scranton, Republican governor of Pennsylvania 15 years ago, to a critically important European "security" conference in Madrid -- showing that in some ways the Carter-Vance team continues business as usual with Moscow.
The Madrid session will review progress in human rights and European "security" promised -- and ignored -- by Moscow at the 1975 Helsinki conference. Despite his reputation as an admirable establishment liberal Republican of a bygone era, Scranton is viewed by human rights advocates as unqualified for the assignment.
"Bill Scranton?" mused one high official asked about the impending appointment. "Frankly, I would prefer Mac Toon." Malcolm Toon is the Foreign Service Soviet expert who quit as ambassador to the Soviet Union last year, criticizing the administration for being "sloppy" in dealing with the Kremlin. Vance could depend on Scranton, his friend and fellow Yale man, not to roil the waters in Madrid (as Toon might).
Scranton lacks an insider's knowledge of the human rights campaign in the Soviet Union and the shocking fate there of "Helsinki-watch committees." tThat would seem to suggest presidential caution in naming Scranton, or any outsider, even with business as usual.
Business as usual, however, between Washington and Moscow ended when the Soviet Union's military took over Afghanistan. Some highly respected U.S. officials, past and present, quietly argue that Carter should pull the United States out of the Vienna negotiations on European armaments (MBFR) now that the Soviet tanks have rumbled. Others are counseling the administration that even the Madrid meeting on European "security" should be postponed; talking with Moscow about international "security" after the invasion of a sovereign state is demeaning and a sign of weakness.
Such counsel is getting nowhere as yet in the inner councils of the secretary of state. Vance chose Scranton (well before the Soviet killings started in Afghanistan) partly to bar boat-rocking at Madrid by U.S. human rights advocates. He believed Scranton would not be spear point for the American human rights constituency as Arthur Goldberg brilliantly was at the first post-Helsinki conference in Belgrade in 1977 -- much to Vance's annoyance.
However unfair that may be to independent-minded Bill Scranton, there is no sign so far that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan has changed Vance's mind. The secretary's calm and constancy contrast with primordial emotions unleashed by Afghanistan and now running high among Americans -- and Russians, as well.
For example, Washington correspondent Thomas Kielinger of the respected West German newspaper Die Welt, in an interview published Jan. 14, quoted a ranking (but anonymous) Soviet diplomat mocking Carter's much-advertised "rapid deployment force" to safeguard the Mideast and Persian Gulf oil: "Rapid deployment force! What is rapid-deployment'? I believe we have demonstrated that in Afghanistan."
The Russian diplomat used blunt language to deride U.S. influence and power in the world today; "The years in which the U.S. had the say as to what could and what could not be done in the world are past, once and for all. We can no longer tolerate Washington behaving as though it were the umpire of contemporary history."
Such views publicly expressed by a disciplined Soviet diplomat would have been unthinkable in any previous U.S.-Soviet crisis. Likewise, the deep hostility to Moscow exhibited by those who want the Vienna arms talks broken off has also reached an emotional high point that seems to have escaped Vance and his inner circle.
That is the background of the proposed Scranton appointment and its nod to business as usual. Vance does not view the Madrid conference as a heaven-sent opportunity for the United States to make a weighty case to an international tribunal against Soviet thuggery -- denial of human rights at home and military invasion abroad.
This will please U.S. allies in Western Europe, who want no confrontation with Moscow's overbearingpower at Madrid or anywhere else. But it dangerously ignores the mood in the world and raises anew most serious questions about U.S. will.