The celebrated Reagan-to-Begin phone call last week was not quite the richly revealing inside glimpse of a critical moment in a high crisis that it was cracked up to be. On the contrary, it was one more production number, one more disturbing piece of evidence that some in the presidential entourage do not believe projection of American influence and power, through the person of Ronald Reagan, is persuasive unless accompanied by visual aids and graphic instant replays.
The official White House photograph of the president reading the riot act to Menachem Begin was not for posterity; the breathless play-by-play accounts were not for Begin's ears only. And the inevitable consequence of the histrionics and the hype was to call into question not only the substance and the reality but the larger question: who needs it? Who needs this public promotion of what, in more traditional times, would be private diplomacy?
Surely, in this instance, Begin didn't need it. For one thing, he well knew Reagan's views on the imperative of a cease-fire in West Beirut. They had just been transmitted in a stiff note (also widely publicized) and in an equally stage-managed, face-to-face encounter between the president and the Israeli foreign minister. More important, there is solid evidence that Begin and his Cabinet had already stared down Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, brought him to heel and decided to initiate a cease-fire several hours before the president's call. There is even evidence that this decision had been already communicated to Washington.
In any event, Menachem Begin would hardly be impressed by show-biz diplomacy, being a world-class performer in the art of turning diplomatic communications to his domestic political purposes. You could argue that the big show was for the benefit of those moderate Arabs who cannot bring themselves to believe that the United States has not been a silent co- conspirator with the Israelis in the invasion of Lebanon from the start.
But given the actual sequence of events, you have to ask how much the Saudis and the other so-called moderate Arabs were impressed. To the extent that they were, you also have to wonder whether they may not be asking themselves: if it's that easy, why didn't it happen a lot earlier?
Now none of this is to suggest that Ronald Reagan's rage was not real, only to ask why we have to be told in so many different ways that it was real, that he really was "livid," that he really did "express his outrage." It's as if his White House handlers were saying: "You think this president doesn't work at the business of foreign policy. You think he's not in command. You don't think he's tough. Just watch Reagan reach out and clout someone."
It doesn't seem to occur to the president's stage managers that the more managing there is, and the more it shows, the deeper run the very doubts that they are trying to put to rest. The image of Ronald Reagan, Hollywood actor, is handicap enough. It becomes all the more a liability exactly to the extent that his foreign policy is presented, transparently, as a photo opportunity.