During the five years he was staving off a summit, President Reagan claimed he didn't want to waste his time at a meeting without a strict agenda. Then he went off to Geneva and insisted on free-form discussions with no agenda at all.
Before he went, it was considered unpatriotic to wish him success in making progress in arms control. Now that he is back, it is bad form to observe that he made none at all.
The post-Geneva reaction illustrates, once again, Reagan's greatest political gift: his capacity to be judged entirely by his own standards, to have his past "imprecisions" -- as mistakes are now called at the White House -- used as the measure of success.
Right now, he is enjoying his most glorious triumph in the art of being judged by his own standards. If he just stops doing something he shouldn't have done in the first place, he is greeted with gratitude and relief.
For instance, we are expected to rejoice that he and Gorbachev got on so well and exchanged chit-chat about the president's movies. At one point, the president told the general secretary that watching himself on the screen was "like seeing the son you never had." It was a baffling response from the father of two sons. It is dismissed as "something Reagan always says."
Because the president has stopped calling the Soviet Union "the evil empire," the world applauds. The speech to Congress was thought a flight of the dove because he didn't say anything mean about Gorbachev.
That's progress, Reagan style."
To some, the Geneva outcome represents "a step backward." Spurgeon Keeny of the Arms Control Association thinks that the failure even to reaffirm two existing pacts, ABM and SALT II, could lead to serious erosion of the agreements
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger launched a ferocious attack against both agreements in a letter leaked to the president just before the summit. Warning his old friend, the president, of the danger lurking in the Swiss mountains, he wrote, "We can, of course, continue to observe parts of SALT II, at your option, but a pledge to continue observing it all could put rigid constraints on your ability to respond to Soviet violations."
This is the "proportionate response" approach to arms control. It means that if we decide the Soviets are cheating, we will cheat, as well. If they decide we're doing the same, they will make their own "proportionate response" and the arms race will go merrily on.
In the meantime, the president has his adversaries right where he wants them. Gorbachev is having to feign being content with the summit, although all he brought back was a first-hand knowledge of the obsessive nature of Reagan's commitment to "Star Wars." He cannot tell the Politburo he came home empty-handed and so he smiles and Pravda prints nice pictures of Reagan.
The U.S. peace movement, which has been in decline since the freeze began to melt away, is stymied. With another Reagan-Gorbachev meeting promised for June, they cannot rally people whose attention to arms control is intermittent, although intense.
Randall Forsberg, a founder of the freeze movement, notes sadly that the Soviet's offer of a mutual moratorium on testing, which was rejected the day it arrived, was ignored at Geneva. She thinks one reason peace activists feel helpless about all of this is "the vacuum of political leadership -- the Democrats offer no alternative."
Democrats are buffaloed by the president's extravagant popularity.Most don't dare to point out that Reagan, the government-basher, is embarking on the greatest boondoggle in history. "Star Wars" will cost a trillion dollars.
But Reagan is talking about more military expenditures as if there were no tomorrow -- and no Gramm-Rudman-Hollings proposal.
During his address to Congress, he reminded them of how he won Geneva. "We must not now abandon policies that work. I need your continued support to keep America strong."
And on his Saturday radio talk, the Geneva peacemaker was pushing for more weapons. "Our strategic modernization program is an incentive for the Soviets to negotiate in earnest. But if Congress fails to support the vital defense efforts needed, then the Soviets will conclude that America's patience and will are paper-thin, and the world will become more dangerous again."
It's one of the many signs that Reagan wants arms control the way Lyndon B. Johnson wanted peace in Vietnam -- that is, on his own terms. The difference is that Johnson got catcalls while Reagan gets bouquets.