Listening to the Reagan administration's top figures talk about communist objectives in Central America or the Middle East-- what the president calls their pursuit of "eventual domination of all peoples of the Earth"--set me to thinking about the East- West confrontation that most people thought at the time was as close as you would want to get to World War III: the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.
Some now say that it was overrated, although none who went through it felt so then. But my point has to do with the aftermath. John F. Kennedy, according to Theodore C. Sorensen, "laid down the line we were all to follow--no boasting, no gloating, not even a claim of victory." Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. has Kennedy musing later that "every setback has the seeds of its own reprisals." It was, he wrote, this "combination of toughness and restraint . . . that dazzled the world."
Now these were not exactly dispassionate accounts. But the "combination of toughness and restraint" is precisely what's missing in the president's much- chewed-over sermon to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, in the administration's presentation of its program for El Salvador, in the post-mortems on the Lebanese war. The president sounds tough. "There is sin and evil in the world," he says, "and we are enjoined by scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might."
And you could say he acts tough. Witness the full-court press now being put on heavy defense increases to rearm America against a Soviet military menace that seems to grow with every declassification of previously top-secret estimates of Soviet military capabilities. You could even say that he is tough-minded when he scorns the "refusal of many influential people" to take Lenin at his word that "the only morality the communists recognize is that which will further their cause, which is world revolution."
But if Ronald Reagan believes that what Lenin said in 1920 is as valid for Yuri Andropov in 1983--that there is no room for evolution or a measure of diversity within the Soviet monolith or among Marxist-Leninists in or out of power everywhere in the world--he is offering a theory that suffers from a lack of restraint. He and his principal lieutenants are also exhibiting the very absence of that tough- mindedness that recognizes complexity and accepts unflinchingly the prospect of protracted and inconclusive confrontation with no neat wins or losses.
Yet, barring some catastrophic mishap, that is the prospect just about everywhere you turn.
Start with the Middle East, and the supposed fruits of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Not the least of these, trumpeted by the Israelis and echoed by the Reagan administration, was the supposed humiliation of the Soviet Union. Soviet weapons in the hands of Syrians were proved to be decisively inferior to American weapons in the hands of the Israelis.
Only a few Soviet experts, mostly outside the government, made the point that it might have been wiser to applaud the Soviets for their restraint--even though everybody knew the Soviets had little choice.
There is no telling how the Soviets might then have responded. All we know is how they have responded: by rushing new, and presumably more sophisticated, SAM air defenses to Syria, with Soviet troops at the missile sites.
For another example, a lot closer to home, take the Reagan rationale for substantial increases in military aid to El Salvador. The administration, from the days of Al Haig, has established El Salvador as a critical test of East versus West, the key to the whole anti-communist effort in Central America, with Mexico's fate hanging in the balance--and ultimately our own. The United States intends to "win," either by luring the leftist insurgents into a democratic process, and eliminating the communist threat that way, or by building up the Salvadoran government's army to the point where it can crush the insurgency.
"It's a matter simply of getting supplies and getting training to them," says Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. "(The rebels) are trained by the Cubans and by the Nicaraguans, and supplied by both, and supplied by the Soviet Union, and resupplied."
There are qualified experts who seriously question the degree of dependence of the rebels on the Cubans, Nicaraguans, and the Soviets. But let's take the administration's word for it. Having been unmistakably challenged by the United States, are the Soviets going to sit idly by while the United States "wins" and Communist plans for "domination of all peoples on the Earth" are dashed in that particular part of it? Or will they "resupply"?
This is not a case for unilateral withdrawal. But it is a case, in Central America, the Middle East or anyplace else where the superpowers come into confrontation, for a certain restraint in the stakes we proclaim, in the soundness of our immediate objectives, in how we deal with setbacks--or success.