Although some West Europeans took excess umbrage at President Reagan last weekend over a comment about limited nuclear war, the president in a way has only himself to blame.
The administration is playing into its critics' hands with a lack of clarity and precision in public statements on a question that is supposed to be of crucial importance to the Atlantic alliance.
The president's remark was made in a session Oct. 16 with a group of out-of-town editors. The transcript includes the line that was pulled out of Reagan's remarks and used to fuel the already heated and spreading political controversy and opposition in several countries about the planned stationing of new U.S.-built Pershing II and cruise missiles on West European soil.
But what is also important about this exchange between the editors and the president is that much of it on the nuclear question is almost impossible to understand.
This lack of clarity is a key factor that fuels European fears and plays into the hands of those trying to exploit them. It also suggests an administration here that either still doesn't understand the collective concerns of the Europeans or is not capable of laying out in plain English, German or Dutch why these missiles are needed, how they enhance European security, how they fit into overall nuclear policy and how they tie the United States and its arsenal of long-range strategic weapons based in this country to the overall defense and fate of Europe.
Neither the president nor Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger has done this in a major public forum. Instead, the impression has been allowed to grow in Europe--because of a series of almost off-hand comments by various officials here about war and atomic weapons--that the administration is imprecise about a subject where precision is essential for public support.
There is, to be sure, a strong element of Soviet and left-wing exploitation of this issue in Europe in an effort to get the allies to pull away from the United States on the missile deployment problem.
But the administration's oft-handedness and the constant need for later clarifying remarks seems to give the Soviets ammunition.
Aside from those Europeans already politicized, there are also genuine concerns among many Europeans about where things are headed. This is because there has been so much talk of war in the United States, because all the weapons being talked about--neutron warheads, cruise missiles on land and sea, chemical warfare and Pershings--are designed primarily for a European battlefield, and because there is the feeling this administration is not very interested in arms control with Moscow.
The cheap shot at Reagan in the European press involved a line from his answer to a question about whether there really could be such a thing as a "limited" nuclear war. In part, Reagan answered that " . . . I could see where you could have the exchange of tactical weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button."
This was interpreted as another sign that Washington was geared-up to fight in Europe without involving the American homeland. In fact, as the State Department tried to point out in a follow-up statement, the NATO alliance for decades has had a strategy of flexible response, which, if it works, is meant to "escalate the application of force in a controlled manner, if necessary."
What this means is that if Western forces were being overrun by a huge Soviet attack with conventional forces, then battlefield-sized atomic weapons might be used to try and stop the attack as a first step. The implication has always been that this nuclear firebreak might provide enough of a pause to get both sides to negotiate rather than keep going up the nuclear ladder.
But the larger question of an administration projecting an image of confidence abroad with respect to knowing what it is talking about is embodied in the following excerpts.