More than two years ago, in mid- 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan struck me as a "figure almost wholly out of touch with the context and content of current events . . . a sort of Rip Van Reagan emerging sleepily out of some California Catskills with a world view and a sense of what's needed to set things right that seemed wonderfully suited for the early 1950s."
The most interesting question, it seemed to me then, was not how much Reagan knew about foreign policy but whether he knew enough to know how much he didn't know. An update is in order, what with one thing and another: the Lebanese crisis, and the promise of a heavy new U.S. peace initiative in the Middle East; the gas pipeline fight with the Europeans; Poland still in thrall to martial law, despite our anti-Soviet sanctions; a constructive compromise of U.S. conflicts of interest over China; no real results in arms control and still less in the struggle against Soviet-Cuban mischief-making in El Salvador and Central America; the Falklands experience.
Clearly, Ronald Reagan has come a long way in his knowledge of what he didn't know. But just as clearly, his emergence from the world of the 1950s has some distance to go.
By way of a benchmark, these are the things that seemed to me to be missing from candidate Reagan's world view in 1980: "The inevitable decline in this country's influence in the Atlantic Alliance . . . the fundamentally altered state of the Mideast . . . the strategic significance of the new U.S. relationship with China . . . the clamorous and conflicting demands on this country's resources as they affect his promise of massive increases in defense spending . . . the difficulty of restoring U.S. prestige and power in the world while regularly proclaiming military inferiority . . . the home-grown content in Third World insurrections, rooted in social and economic deprivations, however much exploited from the outside by the all-pervasive communist menace."
Candidate Reagan, you will recall, was going to restore "official" relations with Taiwan, scrap the SALT II treaty, deploy the neutron bomb in Europe, and hammer together an anti-Soviet defense alliance between Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
He spoke of the Palestinians as "refugees" in a way that suggested they had no real grievance and no justifiable purpose in their efforts to establish a homeland of their own.
The Reagan administration's current muddling and meddling in Central America suggests that some part of his old view of the world still holds -- in that corner of it, anyway.
No real effort has been made to reconcile profound differences between Reagan's approach to East-West relations and that of most Europeans. The result has to be a scrambled signal to the Soviets, of which the pipeline brouhaha is only a part. An Atlantic Alliance deeply divided on the general principle of economic sanctions as a means of influencing Soviet behavior in Poland, or elsewhere, does little to "restore" respect for the United States as leader of the West.
None of this is to discount significant accommodations to reality. The new China deal was struck at a cost of enraging the old Reagan true believers. Acceptance of Camp David as the only sound basis for advancing the Middle East peace process is no less welcome for being late in coming. Reconciliation to SALT II and recognition of the need to proceed with disarmament talks as the price for U.S. nuclear deployments in Europe are sensible accommodations, too.
But projected huge increases in defense spending remain sacrosanct, in the face of swelling budget deficits, record unemployment, and other evidence of an open-ended and debilitating economic crisis. Here again, the signal sent forth to allies and adversaries is not one of strength, but of infirmity.
A nation that feels compelled to advertise its inferiority by plunging into an unprecedented peacetime rearmament may earn respect for its resolve and its intentions. But the advertisement remains a way of saying that, for the time being, it is outgunned and in a poor position to hang tough.
In short, what one finds in a quick examination of Ronald Reagan's progression over the past two years, is a mixture of pluses and minuses -- and no plan for an orderly and sensible reconciliation of this country's overseas commitments and its capabilities. Ronald Reagan persists in expecting the unachievable: that he can talk an Argentine dictator out of invading the Falklands; that he need only glare at Menachem Begin to get the results he wants; that his whistle will snap the fractious Allies to attention. Nostalgia remains at war with reality in his administration's conduct of foreign policy.