Ronald Reagan is being taxed for applying a double standard on the Polish question. Here he is, it is said, up in arms about the crushing of Solidarity by Communists of the left, while he condones by word or deed similar crushings by governments of the right in Latin America, South Africa, Turkey and elsewhere. None of the president's critics wants to be regarded as soft on the Jaruzelski-Brezhnev axis, but the apparent inconsistency nags at them and, they hope, at him as well.
I hope the president takes some of this criticism to heart. It is repugnant to get unnecessarily close to dictators and thugs, whether it's in the name of the cold war or, for that matter, in the name of d,etente. It's no service even to a tough foreign policy.
It can't be ignored, however, that a year ago the American people elected as president a confessing conservative anti- communist. No one should be surprised that he is acting on his long-stated judgment that the goals and methods of Soviet power are a greater danger to the United States than the excesses, however deplorable, of right-wing regimes.
Among Washington aficionados there is a good deal of grumbling about the way Reagan manages the conduct of foreign affairs. Unquestionably, however, in his conservatism he is being faithful to his mandate as well as to his ideology. In the absence of pretty good proof that his policy is a disaster --and such proof is not at hand--it does not much mark the president to be charged in effect with doing what he said he would do from the start.
But a different sort of response is available to the double-standard charge. To an extent neither fully acknowledged nor fully appreciated, Reagan has begun gathering, however reluctantly and irregularly, some "liberal" elements into his foreign policy: a concern for due process, a realization of the limitations of force, a readiness to accommodate interests of others, friends and foes, and favor for negotiation as distinguished from dictation as a basic technique. These have not transformed his basic conservative emphasis on building positions of strength, but they have started to mellow it:
In the toughest current human rights case, El Salvador, the administration is at least trying to follow through on its theory that the providing of aid gives it more leverage on the offending government security forces than would the withholding of aid. The theory is debatable. Returns are incomplete.
The administration has warmed up, by a degree or two, to South Africa, and this may yet carry heavy costs. Meanwhile, it seems to be making progress on bringing independence to Namibia, a valuable undertaking that the previous liberal administration ached, and failed, to consummate.
Central America and the Caribbean have been the likeliest place for a Reagan military intervention. None has come. Events in Poland have made such a back- yard intervention even less likely: since the administration insists that the Soviets own no exclusive sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, it cannot easily claim one for itself in the Caribbean.
Just in the last month, the administration has conducted talks with the opposition in El Salvador, with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, with the regime in Cuba and with the Kremlin, among others. Tactical ploys? Let us see.
In a way, the case closest to Poland is Turkey. There an American-supported military government rules heavily; among its thousands of prisoners is a former elected prime minister. Is this not a situation where the United States winks at the oppression of Turkish generals, who pledge fealty to NATO, while it scores the oppression of Polish generals, who pledge fealty to the Warsaw Pact?
This takes us to the territory of admittedly arguable differences. For me, this one counts most. In Turkey, the violence of the generals is rough but it is slight compared to the unbelievable terrorist violence that brought the generals in. Turkish-type violence undertaken to restore a popular political process--new elections have now been announced--is not the same as Polish- type violence undertaken to halt a popular political process.
A certain young journalist once had occasion to ask Clark Clifford, who had served Harry Truman, why it was OK for the United States to intervene (secretly) in West Europe's elections after the war when it was not OK for the Kremlin to intervene in East Europe's elections. The journalist was under the impression that it was a devastating question, and he was not satisfied by Clifford's booming reply: "Because when we do it, it's right!"
But I am more satisfied now. Means are something, but ends are something. Look at how Europe ended up. The crucial test is: will the action give people greater control over their own lives? The Reagan policy does not meet this standard everywhere, and where it doesn't it must be challenged. In Poland, it does.