It was said of Lyndon B. Johnson that he "wanted the world to work to his clock." So he turned inward in his first full year as president to civil rights, taxes, the economy. Only by a show of his own political command and of this country's capacity to deal with its own failings could he give leadership and a sense of America's power to the world.
But the world didn't work to Johnson's clock. The North Vietnamese pushed relentlessly south. The Dominican Republic exploded in an anti-American revolt. By early 1965, United States combat units were landing 10,000 miles apart.
The point is not that Johnson had the wrong priorities. But you will have noted by now a certain similarity with Ronald Reagan's priorities. True, he intends to convey an early willingness to renegotiate a new arms control agreement with the Soviets -- but only in "linkage" with some understandings about Soviet behavior worldwide.
And only after he has first attended to a federal hiring freeze, tax cuts, "getting hold of our economy," 'straightening out" the energy problem and starting the big defense buildup.
"The first job is to let [the Soviets] see the course we are going to follow domestically," Reagan told Time magazine in his first post-election interview.
Now that's an orderly, prudent approach, given the Reagan sense of this country's awful infirmities. Or it is until you look at Poland, the Mideast, the Caribbean, the Iraqi-Iranian war (not to mention the hostage issue), the workings of the Atlantic alliance and the defense-planning timetables of the Soviet Union. When you look at all of that (and more), you have to wonder whether the world, any more so than for Lyndon Johnson, is going to work for Ronald Reagan's clock.
One old Washington hand who has suffered through the enforced suspended animation of more than a few presidential transitions can think of none in which an incoming administration faced "so much urgent, ongoing business and so many genuinely dangerous foreign flash points."
Item: Poland's power struggle between the labor unions and the government is an open-ended affair. The resolution of the current strike threat by no means removes the danger of fresh confrontations with the government as Polish workers test their new freedoms. Soviet troop deployments and the sealing off of Polish frontiers raise at least the possibility of active Soviet intervention before a President Reagan would be in a position to put into practice his "linkage" theory of how to restrain the Soviets.
Item: It is Reagan doctrine that an American arms buildup will discourage, rather than provoke, more of the same by the Soviet Union, thus promoting a willingness to negotiate a better arms control deal than the now-defunct Salt ii. But how soon? In February, the Kremlin's budget-makers are due to make critical decisions allocating resources and determining defense spending over the next five years.
"Once adopted and put into motion, these decisions acquire a life of their own," says a high Carter administration official.
Item: Reagan says the Camp David "peace process" has been "undermined." He has hinted he may convey his own ideas of how to proceed, even before his inaugural. He sets high store on a role for Jordan's King Hussein. But Jordan is closely allied on Iraq's side of the waar with Iran and unlikely to be in a position to be helpful anytime soon.
Meantime, the Israeli Knesset is at work on a bill to annex the Golan Heights, a move that can only inflame Arab-Israeli relations across the board and make the cooperation of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat immeasureably more difficult. Early in the new year, in any event, Israel will be caught up in the political fever of its own elections. The next step forward from Camp David may be a year away.
Item: To compensate for its own increased defense effort in the Persian Gulf, the Carter administration is planning at next month's NATO ministerial meetings to put a heavy arm on its Atlantic allies for a bigger defense effort on their part in Europe. But the West Germans are saying they can't even meet the 3 percent annual increases the allies had all agreed to -- while Reagan is talking about a 7 percent increase for the United States. Those disparities don't necessarily translate into the sort of firm and consistent alliance "leadership" that Reagan is promising.
Meanwhile, there's the Iraqi-Iranian war, wholly unpredictable in its repercussions or its outcome but unlikely to be over, or any less threatening to American interests in the Persian Gulf, by Jan. 20. The hostage outlook is more than ever compounded by internal power-struggling in Iran. El Salvador seethes with turmoil requiring urgent, delicate U.S. attention. To all of this, one must always add the unforeseeable Crisis X.
Reagan says he intends to be "able to hit the ground running." He'll have to be. The world isn't standing around, shuffling its feet, waiting for him to land.