"It's a Barnum and Bailey World/Just as crazy as it can be/But it wouldn't be make-believe/If you believed in me." Somehow, I couldn't get rid of those old lyrics from "Paper Moon" while watching the newscasts and reading the front pages of recent days: the British fleet steaming toward the Falkland Islands; Argentine mobs screaming war threats; ominous Israeli troop movements and PLO "alerts" across the Lebanese border; news of an anti-nuclear movement spreading township-to-township across America; unemployment lines signaling 10 million out of work; a cruel and damaging spring, with weather reports of worse to come. And interspersed, fleetingly, the glimpses of the president of the United States, commander in chief of the armed forces and leader of the Free World, skipping pebbles off the waves on a Barbados beach.
Yes, I know Ronald Reagan deserves an Easter vacation, and they were nice shots of an athletic- looking 71-year-old. But what are people to think? Was much, if any, thought given to the image transmitted--the signal sent--to the general American public or to decision-makers abroad, in Jerusalem or Buenos Aires or London?
This may sound like pretty subliminal stuff, of little lasting consequence, and with no immediate impact on the crisis in the Falklands or the tension-ridden Middle East. But perceptions count, at home and abroad, in the conduct of foreign affairs; a high degree of confidence is critical all around. Impressions also build-- and linger on. Leaving aside the sun and surf, the president's most memorable recent foreign policy speech had to do with his Caribbean Basin initiative, a multi-million-dollar aid program for that region. He wisely took time off from his vacation to discuss the program with local leaders. Why, then, with the Caribbean as his setting, did he personally switch plans and devote his five-minute radio chat with the American people, not to the topic most readily at hand or to the hemispheric implications of the Falkland flap, but to an angry defense of his policy on federal student loans? The explanation presumably lies in the politics of his economic policies. But the effect of this admittedly minor event is to add to the impression that he is not just preoccupied with internal domestic affairs, but actually not much interested in, or particularly adept at, dealing with the world at large.
The impression set in almost from the start. Foreign policy was the area in which his background was the thinnest, prior experience negligible, ideas firmly fixed. Fairly or not, the word is around that he has spent little time subjecting any of these fixed ideas to intense, personal reappraisal on the basis of firsthand experience. The reasoning was that Jimmy Carter got way over his head in details so Ronald Reagan would delegate. But just as Carter was widely perceived to be ineffective by reason of being overly involved, so Reagan is perceived by foreigners as well as a lot of Americans as not really running things by reason of being overly laid-back.