As public criticism of American policy grows louder in Europe, so private doubt is rising in Washington about whether those new nuclear missiles will actually be installed as planned in two years' time. Three to one against, says one arch-realist; no, two to one. It could be a very close-run thing.
That being the case, it is no surprise that it is being asked--and not just on the left--whether Europe is the proper place for President Reagan to apply what might be called his PATCO style of negotiating. In taking on the air controllers, Reagan declared they were challenging his very presidential authority and credibility. He broke the union and went on to act in the same all-or-nothing mode in the AWACS battle.
The thought of doing it another way is blasphemy in the White House. The president's chief foreign policy spokesman, Edwin Meese III, said of the agitation in Europe the other day, "We feel this will not impact" on the NATO decision to continue preparing to deploy new Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe, even as talks on mutual reductions open with the Soviet Union on Nov. 30.
It would be awkward and costly for NATO to forgo on its own the weapons that it hoped to use to bargain down the new missiles the Soviet Union has been training on Europe.
But would it not be much more awkward and costly to set out on that path and then see the Europeans pull the plug by holding back from the scheduled deployments? Is it not logical to expect the Soviets to spin out the talks, play the propaganda game and wait to watch Europe wobble?
A tough political decision must be made, then, before the Americans go to the table on Nov. 30: will the Europeans hold--hold, that is, for two years?
The administration's answer, as best I can gather, is that there is a value in steadiness, that the demonstrations do not signal a rot beyond checking or repair, that the actual onset of negotiations will deaden the corrosive charge that Reagan is interested in arms but not in arms control, and that the substance of the American position will be attractive enough to put Moscow back on the defensive.
This administration reading is certainly not frivolous. Against it, however, I place the reading of a once (and perhaps future) European prime minister who came through Washington not long ago. He expressed fear that the administration, by its specific statements and its general line, was overloading a Europe already taut with anxiety and alarm. It particularly upset him to hear some substantial portion of Europe's unrest attributed to Soviet "disinformation" activities.
Ronald Reagan has described the European malady, confidently, as "pacifism and neutrality." This man said, soberly, "Something is happening in Europe that we Europeans don't yet understand."
Perhaps Reagan has a sure grasp on the European pulse and, in moving ahead, is taking a properly calculated risk. Many, though not all, thoughtful Europeans believe he is cutting it too fine. They point out in dismay that the one person they have relied on to inject some empathy for the European situation into administration deliberations, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., seems a political cripple.
McGeorge Bundy suggested recently on this page that, in respect to the missiles, we should think not in terms of "a mechanical matching of every Soviet move" but in terms of arrangements that enjoy updated alliance- wide support.
Right now the United States is making the NATO talk-and-deploy decision of 1979 a test of alliance fidelity. Suppose the administration were simply to say that, just as the United States was responding to a European call in 1979 to do something about the Soviet SS20s, so it continues to be ready to respond to a new European call to ensure the security of the alliance by another plan, one perhaps relying more on offshore missiles.
This suggestion comes to me from my arch-realist friend, a distinguished conservative who does not share the incipient neo-isolationist readiness of some other conservatives to let Europe go hang. Nobody in Washington is more suspicious of Soviet power. When he talks like a liberal, I listen.