IF YOU begin your consideration of this year's political issues, as we do, with the prospects for betterment of the condition of poor black Americans, you get directly to the question of jobs and the economy. Which in turn takes you to the energy dilemma. And from there it is a short journey overseas. Energy is at the center of the domestic dilemma and it is also at the center of much foreign policy concern -- its effect on economies (and therefore on allegiances and alliances and prospects for national progress) all over the world.
The core foreign policy requirement of the 1980s will be to deal right with and in the Persian Gulf region. There are other regions and issues of great importance, but the model for dealing with them will be here. From the Gulf comes the oil on which the United States and its allies and friends depend; in a few years its adversaries will start depending on the same oil. Within the Gulf swirl the currents -- nationalism, religious fundamentalism, ethnicity, aspirations to development and a place in the sun, ambivalence toward the United States -- that make the Third World such a difficult terrain. Upon the Gulf now bears the large and, at least in that region, increasing power and ambition of the Soviet Union, with all that means for relations between the two great powers.
It is instructive to recall that just four years ago it was considered more than a little crude to suggest that in a short time American foreign policy would be centering on such an old unromantic 19th-century sort of problem as access to a key natural resource. Scant was made for that in Jimmy Carter's promise to consummate an East-West detente left hanging by the Nixon and Ford aministrations, and to marry it to a new sensitivity to North-South "dialogue." This prospect was a casualty of 1) the trend in Soviet adventurism that culminated in the invasion of Afghanistan, on short hop from the Gulf, and 2) the no less harmful habit of American complacency that culminated in the overthrow of the regime the United States had relied on to ensure regional stability. Thus came into being the set of dilemmas the United States faces now.
A superficial case can be made that the politicians in this country have already adjusted to the new conditions. In his air of reborn vigilance, in the deployment of military forces, in defense budget allocations and plans, Jimmy Carter claims to have come abreast of what he now concedes is a crisis long in the making and one sure to be part of the geopolitical landscape for years. For his part, Ronald Reagan is in a comfortable I-told-you-so position, declaring that what has happened is no more than the predictable consequence of strategic inattention, of which he has long warned.
Except that this is all too slick. The true need, which no candidate has properly addressed, is not simply to strengthen the military element of policy in response to a crisis but to make a broad and deep analysis of the world likely to outlast the invariable daily ups and downs of the public's sense of crisis -- and to construct a long-range policy to match. It is easy to say, in the wake of the last year's events, that raw, old-fashioned national sovereign military power and its moral and political concomitant, national will, are what make the world go around after all.But this is one one of the lessons that should have been learned. Military power is essential, but a readiness and a capacity to detect the complicated political currents flowing everywhere and to deal with them constructively is also essential. If Mr. Carter came late and unsteadily to the need to establish credibility, then Gov. Reagan has yet to demonstrate the subtlety and moderation that the complexity of international relations requires. Mr. Anderson lacks the experience to give much life to his position papers.
There is the final matter of style. The high-energy personal involvement of Jimmy Carter produced a spectacular success in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but otherwise the results have ranged from modest to disappointing and on down. His inability to control the tension he chose to build into his policy apparatus, by putting men of different minds at key posts, has produced confusion and inconsistency. The failure to gain ratification of the SALT treaty was due as much to Mr. Carter's insufficient grasp of the larger strategic and political realities as to the shock of Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan would presumably be a more subdued administrator. He often seems, however, to assume blithely that the United States can work its will -- can assert primacy -- just by saying so.
All of the United States' economic, political and strategic choices are sharpened by the deterioration of the American position in and around the Persian Gulf. There can be no further expectation that the going will be easy or that somehow a special providence will carry this country through. At the same time, a siege mentality cannot be allowed to crowd out a coherent vision of a world in which elements of order, justice and progress fare better than they seem to be doing today. The task of the next president is to describe such a vision, to devise the policies that will take the United States toward it and to muster -- we return to this again and again -- the political skills that alone will let him lead.