It's transition time, when all over this town people are playing their favorite sport: predicting the performance in fine detail of a new administration before it's even been formed.
The game is played with names. Henry Kissinger is in close to Reagan, if not in line for steady work. Ergo: "linkage," the geopolitical grand strategy that transforms every aspect of U.S.-Soviet involvement into one big basket of interconnected eels, is back in style.
George Shultz is a hot prospect (or cold, depending on the day of the week) for State. In any case, his Bechtel Corp. connections with the Arab world would bode ill for Israel.
A hard-eyed hater of anything or anybody "Marxist-oriented" from one of the strategic studies think tanks is in line for a loud voice in Latin America affairs; that's bad for Nicaragua's Sandinista government, good for the old reliable right-wing Latin military juntas.
A swashbuckling, high-rolling military spendor is penciled in for Defense; there goes arms control.
Like jogging, it's invigorating. But also like jogging, it really doesn't get you anywhere. Take it from any of the old hands who have suffered through the titillations of past takeovers: even after the full Reagan team is in place, and all the prejudices, predilections and past pronouncements have been meticulously scrutinized, you will still be without a precise or reliable guide to future performance on just about anything -- but in particular on foreign policy.
Partly this is because affairs international are peculiarly vulnerable to events beyond safe prediction for effective control -- a Soviet intervention in Poland, a widening of the Iraqi-Iranian war. Partly it's the unknowable of how Ronald Reagan's "corporate management" will shake down in the end -- the way the thin air of high office will work on particular personalities, the outcome of the inevitable power plays. Richard Nixon promised us "Cabinet government" and gave us the Kissinger one-man band. Jimmy Carter made the same promise and produced an ear-jingling duet: Zbigniew Brzezinski at the White House and Vance/Muskie at State.
But mostly the ambiguities are implicit in the nature of a big government with a large -- and largely unmovable -- mass of planners whose pet projects have their own life. It has firmly in place a fact-finding intelligence apparatus whose working-level assessments and analyses are not necessarily going to fit or reinforce the preconceptions of the new people at the top.
Remember the heady days of John F. Kennedy's takeover, the clarion inaugural call ("to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe . . .") and the lean, taut confident movers and shakers he brought to town? Somehow, inside the Pentagon, they couldn't find the "missile gap" that had been the centerpiece of the Kennedy campaign. Still less could they rightly recall what had seemed so urgent about Quemoy and Matsu. Within weeks the Kennedy people were complaining that in their briefings by the outgoing Eisenhower people, nobody had even mentioned Vietnam.
And in a few months they were carried to disaster on the momentum of a well-advance military operation, conceived many months earlier by Kennedy's predecessor, to invade the Bay of Pigs. Nikita Khrushchev, getting to know Kennedy in Vienna shortly thereafter, was unimpressed.
By reciting the Kennedy experience, I am not inviting exact analogies. I'm simply suggesting that no more than most administrations in the past is Ronald Reagan's likely to bear out -- six, or 12 or 18 months later -- many of the portents and impressions that will seem so self-evident when it comes to power less than two months from now.
Things simply look different from the inside of government looking out than they do from the outside -- academia, corporate board rooms, law offices or the transition headquarters -- looking in.
Like whipping the armed services into fighting trim, for example. Nobody questions the need -- only the stupendous cost of maintaining a volunteer army in peacetime. But it just may be that there is something inherently difficult about recruiting and maintaining volunteer forces -- something for which the military itself has some responsibility.
It sounds sensible to put the SALT talks on hold while launching a big American arms buildup, and asking the Europeans to take on more of the alliance load. But the Europeans want SALT and "detente"; when they speak of American "leadership," they speak, in the same breath, of themselves as "co-equal" partners.
Will Jordan, now locked into military alliance with Israel's most implacable enemy, Iraq, be suddenly amenable to a whole new Reagan approach to the Palentinian issue -- with Jordank as the key collaborator? Would a powerful American military presence somewhere on the scene keep Iraq or Iran from blowing up each other's or somebody's else's Persian Gulf oil fields?
But don't let me interrupt. We'll know the starting lineup soon enough. Later, perhaps quite a lot later, will be time enough to find out in practice what the names mean in the light of hard realities.