As he campaigns through the early primary states of the East Coast, Ronald Reagan is trying to present a foreign policy that is assertively anti-Soviet without sounding bellicose or strident
"President Carter has given us words, words, words," says Reagan press secretary Jim Lake. "Gov Reagan is trying to show that there are actions which can be taken, and that it is actions that count."
In almost every case, the actions Reagan has said he would consider as pressident go far beyond anything the Carter administration has done to challenge the Soviet Union. The alternatives which Reagan talks about in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan include a blockade of Cuba, a funneling of arms to Afghan "freedom fighters," aid to Pakistan even if that country builds a nuclear bomb, and a total boycott on trade with the Russians.
Since the Iowa caucuses, foreign policy has become the focus of Reagan's campaign.
"The people are interested in foreign policy and the president is preempting all debate on it," Lake said. "Somebody had to hold Carter's feet to the fire. Kennedy isn't doing it. The other candidates aren't doing it. The national press isn't really doing it. We're trying to do it."
For example, at a news conference in Orlando Thursday Reagan opened by assailing Carter for failing to force removal of a Soviet brigade from Cuba.
Reagan said the equipment this brigade is using -- including Mig23 fighters, diesel submarines and T62 tanks -- is "identical to military equipment now being stockpiled by the Soviets in Southern Yemen."
Quoting from Georgetown University defense analyst Edward Luttwak, Reagan said, "The Cuban intervention forces are being trained in armored warfare and will likely be deployed from Southern Yemen against neighboring Oman," the small pro-Western state at the tip of the Arabian peninsula. If the Soviets' "Cuban proxies" gain control of Oman, Reagan said, "the Soviet Union would then be able to control the vital chokepoint of the Straits of Hormuz, and could further expand in the curcial but weak states of the (Persian) Gulf, including Saudi Arabia itself."
In many respects, that statement was typical of those that have plunged Reagan into controversy in recent weeks.
He left the impression that the Soviets are training Cuban soldiers in Cuba for an invasion of Oman, but he never actually said so, Nor, though he accused Carter of "double-talk about American security," did Reagan spell out what he would do to get the Russian brigade withdrawn from Cuba.
When Reagan was pressed, he said again he would blockade the island. That would not lead to war, Reagan feels; he is convinced that the Russians do not want a direct confrontation with the United States.
Reagan has tried to soften the impact of his statements by saying that he "does not have all the information a president has at his disposal" and therefore cannot say for certain what policy he would follow in office.
However, he and his aides have refused all State Department offers of briefings, declaring that they do not want to be co-opted by the administration. This leaves Reagan free to back away from a statement that comes out overly bellicose by treating it as just another alternative.
Part of the problem in assessing Reagan's proposals is that he has never issued an overall foreign policy manifesto. His advisers said last year that such a statement would be forthcoming eary in 1980. Richard Allen, Reagan's national security consultant, said this week that a position paper would not be issued before the Feb. 26 New Hampshire primary.
Until he was beaten in the Iowa caucuses last month, Reagan's foreign policy statements did not differ significantly from those of his major Republican presidential opponents. The Carter administration, he said, had done away with or delayed such needed defense programs as the B1 bomber and the MX missile system while pursuing foreign policies guided by a desire to make the United States liked rather than respected.
In strategy sessions immediately following his loss to George Bush in Iowa, Reagan and his aides agreed that it was necessary to start being more specific.
From the outset, Reagan has been far more precise about the domestic side of national security issues than the foreign policy side.
He says that as president he would base America's defense budget on an assessment of what the Soviets are spending for military purposes and that he would spend whatever is necessary to maintain military equality with the Soviet Union.
A longtime opponent of the peace-time draft, Reagan also opposes Carter's call for registration. Early registration, he says, would save only a few days in the event a draft was needed, and isn't worth the huge bureaucracy it would create in the meantime. He would prefer to upgrade the dwindling military reserves through promotions and incentives.
While trying to draw sharp foreign policy distinctions with Carter, Reagan also is attempting to match Bush, his principal opponent of the moment. Reagan has no formal foreign policy experience, while Bush has been United Nations ambassador, liaison to the People's Republic of China and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
However, Reagan says he has met many times with various world leaders, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and South Korean president Park Chung Hee, "who's now been assassinated." While Henry A. Kissinger was meeting with Chou En-lai in China, Reagan says he was meeting with Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan as an emissary of then-President Nixon to explain the change in U.S. policy.