Right up to the final passage in President Reagan's foreign policy progress report at last week's news conference, you could have kept telling yourself that he really didn't mean it, that it was a mite self-serving, a trifle hyperbolic but harmless--if you didn't take it seriously.
But then the president told us, in effect, to take it seriously: "It behooves all of us to recognize that every word uttered here in Washington turns up, by way of ambassadors and embassies, in all the other countries of the world." We should "reflect," he said earnestly, on whether what's said here is going to "aid in what we're trying to do . . . or whether it's going to set us back."
The conclusion I come to is that the six or seven utterably unbelievable things the president said about his foreign policy are going to set us back-- perhaps even way back, if the people of influence in other countries of the world actually believe that he believes them.
Reporters present laughed when the president said, "There is no personal animus, and there is no bickering or back- stabbing going on around here--we're a very happy group." From their daily rounds, the reporters know better. But it is not a laughing matter if the president really believes it, and believes as well that the "picture that has been given of chaos and disarray" is the invention of the press and a "disservice to the country."
The press may well be a willing collaborator in the conveying of official animus. But if the president doesn't know the "bickering" and "back-stabbing" is real, he is dangerously removed from what's happening. It was Secretary of State Alexander Haig, after all, who publicly introduced the issue of "guerrilla warfare" within the president's "happy group."
And it was Haig who spoke of a "demonstration" nuclear warning shot as NATO doctrine in Europe, in open congressional testimony; and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger who flatly denied "the existence of anything remotely resembling" that idea the next day. When, a week later, the president was still unable to say where the truth lay, that's "disarray" doubled and redoubled.
"Everything turned out just fine" at last month's Cancun summit, the president said. Ask the French, the Canadians, the Mexicans or any of the less developed countries, whose hopes for a far grander outcome were dashed, if they were really "very pleased," as Reagan claimed.
Ask the Mexicans, with whom the president says we "have a better rapport" than "we've ever had," how they feel about the administration's policy in El Salvador.
Even more to the point, ask responsible leaders in Europe whether they would agree with the president's claim that "I don't think we've ever had a stronger relationship" with our European allies. Some will tell you that relations have never been more precarious.
Reagan's rejection of SALT II still rankles there, as a sign of deep-down lack of interest in arms control. Large majorities (not just a handful of young "peace protesters" inflamed by Soviet "disinformation," as Vice President George Bush would have us believe) oppose the development of U.S. Theater Nuclear Forces in Belgium and the Netherlands.
A member of the West German Bundestag (and a strong TNF supporter) complains that the Reagan administration, officially and openly, comes across as "projecting the specter of an unbridled arms race."
West Germany's Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had a near revolt in his Cabinet when Reagan first talked loosely about the possibility of a battlefield nuclear war confined to Europe. Almost alone, he cooled down his rebellious colleagues, according to an official who was present, arguing that Reagan was new and inexperienced and needed help. So the president delivered another disquisition on the subject at his news conference.
Europe's leaders have serious internal political problems that work to undermine alliance purposes. To be told there are no problems is worse than an insult to their intelligence; to the extent they believe that Reagan really believes his foreign policy accomplishments have been rather "astounding," their already shaky reliance on American leadership is unlikely to be reinforced. Unless, of course, they do weigh "every word," in which case they will discover in Webster's International Dictionary that to "astound" means to "bewilder by sudden surprise."