Daniloff Affair Finds Reagan Caught in Own Rhetoric

<i> Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. </i>

In this summer’s most popular spy thriller, the Soviets seize a Westerner in order to swap him for one of their spies caught red-handed. The deal is done, and no one’s the worse off--all part of the genre. But it’s different when the Westerner is an actual American journalist in Moscow, cast into the KGB’s Lefortovo prison. It’s the stuff of high politics, but with a flesh-and-blood reality.

The case of Nicholas Daniloff, chief Moscow correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, comes at an inconvenient moment for the Reagan Administration. Two weeks from now, Secretary of State George P. Shultz is to sit down with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze to plan this year’s superpower summit. The Western White House has already made clear that l’affaire Daniloff will not be permitted to interfere with business as usual. Arms control, current discussions in Moscow on Afghanistan and other U.S.-Soviet issues are seen as too important.

This is a view with a long pedigree--but not in this Administration. Ironically, it is precisely the subordination of the person to reasons of state--this time, the blatant setting-up of a U.S. journalist--that President Reagan has cited as a major element of his predecessors’ failed stewardship of U.S.-Soviet relations. In office, Reagan is having to learn that the world is not as simple as portrayed in campaign rhetoric.


It is safe to assume that Daniloff was victimized by the KGB in retaliation for FBI seizure of an alleged Soviet spy, Gennady F. Zakharov. Perhaps the FBI was overzealous in hyping its catch and decided to reel him in now because of recent bad publicity about Soviet spying. Perhaps the KGB thus acted out of revenge, without Politburo approval. Never mind. The Soviet leadership is now stuck with a problem, and Americans have little patience for governments unable to behave with a modicum of decency toward the “little guy.”

Moscow’s actions in the past few days are bringing out all the unresolved U.S.-Soviet issues in the Reagan Administration. For every official in the State Department or White House who hopes that the whole thing will go away, there is a bureaucratic combatant in the Defense Department now saying, “I told you so.” The latter want to make Reagan be as good as his word in hopes of scuttling any East-West progress. He has said that the forthcoming summit can’t be just about arms control but must produce concrete results in political areas. And what, after all, is more about politics than civility of treatment toward one another’s nationals?

The President is thus under pressure to exact some form of penalty: to postpone the Shultz-Shevardnadze meeting, to cut down on grain sales or to curtail cultural exchanges. At issue is the so-called doctrine of linkage: whether the United States should permit improved relations in one area--say, in arms control--if the Soviets are misbehaving elsewhere.

The apostles of arms control generally agree with the State Department line--that potential progress is too important to be sidetracked by an incident over a single individual. There is good reason to argue that arms-control agreements are either in our interest and should be negotiated on their merits alone or that they are not worthwhile and should not be accepted. Whatever else is happening in U.S.-Soviet relations should not detract from this central reality of the nuclear age.

Yet neither arms control nor any other aspect of U.S.-Soviet relations takes place in a political vacuum. In American domestic politics it matters that the KGB is prepared to violate the dignity of a U.S. correspondent. It matters whether the U.S. government is prepared, quietly but firmly, to tell Moscow that its actions are unacceptable.

Reagan is becoming trapped in his own record. His failure to lead within his Administration, to sort out internal squabbles, makes his Soviet policy hostage to a single incident. And his unwillingness to explain to the American people the dilemmas of dealing with the Soviet Union put him at a political disadvantage.


The classic American problem is to accept, at the same time, two conflicting truths as equally valid: The Soviet Union does brutalize its people and has no respect for basic political rights that we take for granted. But it is also a formidable nuclear power with which we must treat, if only to prevent mankind’s final war. There is tension between these ideas. And a President who refuses to educate the American public about them risks the kind of political difficulty that Reagan now faces.

Already the Western White House has floated the idea of swapping Zakharov for Daniloff. But one must admire Nick Daniloff’s strong objection to being part of a swap. That act would be read by many observers as implying guilt, and would be more damaging than the precedent set for rewarding Soviet misconduct. In a Moscow prison an act of integrity thus shows the moral superiority of one man over the entire Soviet system.