Give us a few action-packed days complete with war clouds and the temptation is irresistible to lean back and rate the performance of the president. The only trouble with these instant judgments is that we don't always lean back far enough -- or look far enough ahead.
Such was the case over the Easter holidays. The president was savoring his triumphs over Muammar Qaddafi and Senate opponents of his $100 million aid program for the Nicaraguan contras. He had struck a fine blow against the archterrorist everybody loves to hate. He had made the most of a Sandinista border crossing into Honduras to prove his claim of the expansionist aims of the Marxist-Leninists in Managua. Almost everybody said Ronald Reagan was on a roll.
"The president's position has never been stronger," said the Chief White House speechwriter, Bently Elliott, quoted in a Wall Street Journal roundup of reaction under the headline: "In Command: President Tightens Already Firm Control Over the National Agenda." Even Democrats agreed. "The priorities in this town are Reagan's," said Horace Busby, a longtime Lyndon Johnson associate.
Oddly, it was left to the president's own true- believing followers to raise the right question: So what? So what if he controls the "agenda," commands massive political capital and holds the high ground in opinion polls? As the right-wing Washington Times reported, what leading conservatives wanted to know was what this had to do with wiping out terrorism, containing communism, overthrowing the Sandinistas.
"The most damning critique of the administration's foreign policy is that it is purely reactive," said Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus. "There is no overall administration plan." Gordon Jones, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, questioned the president's foreign-policy attention span, arguing that it gives us "an extremely inconsistent foreign policy, one that is difficult for the American people to understand and one that is difficult for (Reagan) to rally support for."
Leaving aside what policies the true believers have in mind (I shudder to think), the president's conservative critics are at least drawing a crucial distinction between what it is that Reagan is in control of and what it is that the United States of America is in control of. When you lean way back and take the long view, what you see is Reagan responding to international events of his own picking and choosing, while the United States is in control of not all that much.
The latest shootout in the Gulf of Sidra is no more likely to cow Qaddafi than did a similar incident in 1981, when two Libyan jets were shot down by the U.S. Navy. Rather, it is more likely to incite than deter international terrorism, of which Libya is by no means the only source. No far-out territorial claims offer so convenient an opportunity to challenge and then to "punish" Syria and Iran. Both are regularly cited by the administration as being at least as serious breeding grounds for anti-American terrorist groups as Libya. And these rabid splinter groups are not necessarily responsive to the discipline of any umbrella organization or government.
Thus, by inviting an opportunity to slap down Qaddafi, the administration has no more found an answer to the problem of international terrorism than the U.S. government has found an answer to, say, the problem of cyanide in pain relievers or bits of glass in baby food. That the former may have led to the latter is no basis for concluding they are connected by anything other than a kind of crazy contagion.
Similarly, the Senate vote on contra aid speaks volumes about the president's command of the American political process, but says little about the U.S. capacity to cope with the communist threat in Central America. Just as the president successfully asserted rights of navigation in the Gulf of Sidra, so he will be successful in getting much of the money he wants for the Nicaraguan "freedom fighters."
But by the time that money runs out, he can only hope, at best, to have established how much more aid will be needed and in what form -- more money or more direct American involvement -- to accomplish his purpose of removing the Sandinista threat to Central American and U.S. security.
It is idle to assume that the Cubans and/or the Soviets will be doing nothing to reinforce the Sandinistas. On the contrary, the Cubans have already committed themselves to matching whatever military aid the contras get with more support to the Sandinistas. At worst, the president may have to pay later in his own presidency for what is now perceived to be his towering control over his own domestic political condition. At best he may make it through to the end of his second term with all of his considerable political assets and power safely intact.
In that event, the price for the illusion of solutions today will be paid in the same way it has been paid in the past when presidents have ducked hard choices in the interest of husbanding their political capital. It will be paid by those who follow on and have to pick up the pieces of unfinished foreign-policy business.