Reagan Can Still Come Out on Top : Opportunity Remains for Him to Make His Mark as Statesman

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

The prevailing wisdom holds that the Reagan Administration is almost totally crippled in foreign policy. Because of the Iran- contras affair, the reasoning goes, President Reagan’s authority has been gravely diminished. It is not possible to put the current imbroglio behind us and get foreign policy back on the track. At best, there will be a caretaker presidency until after next year’s elections.

This view is popular, even compelling, but it is nonsense. It reflects confusion on two points: where Ronald Reagan is politically, and who he is personally.

The Iran-contras affair did not occur in a political vacuum. The day after the first revelations, the President suffered a setback of at least equal political significance when the Democrats regained control of the Senate by a surprising 10 seats. Suddenly Reagan was ratified in perception as well as in fact as irrelevant to the 1988 pursuit of power. The President’s potency would have been reduced even if he had never played games with Iran and the contras.


Whatever the cause, Reagan is thus politically limited in pursuing his domestic agenda with Congress. But what about foreign policy? It is tempting to believe that “crippled” must also apply to Reagan’s role as the commander-in-chief. There is no inherent reason that it should. Indeed, Presidents frustrated at home have regularly turned to foreign policy, where they have more latitude plus a natural advantage over Congress in stimulating public approval.

When crisis ensues, cynics often say that the turn toward foreign policy was simply an effort to escape political trouble at home. The “October surprise” that is feared by challengers to incumbent Presidents is never about domestic affairs. Inhabitants of the Oval Office are particularly tempted by the prospect of a coup in U.S.-Soviet relations. As a crowning achievement of his presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower set store by the 1960 Paris summit meeting with Nikita S. Khrushchev. Lyndon B. Johnson had ambitions in arms control but was thwarted by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Richard M. Nixon brought the threshold test-ban treaty and new limits on anti-ballistic missiles home from Moscow only five weeks before he resigned.

The 100th Congress may now halt the money going to the contras, but that was quite likely even before the arms scandal broke and the Democrats won the mid-term elections. Congress may now vote for protectionist legislation, but it was already set on that course. And it will likely confront Reagan over the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars.” But the only connection of the SDI to the Iran-contras affair is Reagan’s distraction from the arms-control course that he set at the Reykjavik superpower summit meeting last October.

Yet if Reagan chooses to pursue a centrist, mainstream foreign policy, this Congress will not say him nay. He can seek a U.S.-Soviet arms-control agreement, breathe life into U.S. Middle Eastern policy, restore the allies’ confidence in his stewardship (even of anti-terrorist policy), pursue negotiations for security arrangements in Central America and seize the moral high-ground in Southern Africa. He can even head off protectionism and leach much of the bitterness out of economic relations with America’s Western industrial partners by taking the lead to end the impasse over taxes and spending that fuels the U.S. trade deficits.

In arms control Reagan can regain command of his Administration whenever he wants to do so. If that means firing some officials and hiring new ones, he would have no difficulty in finding experienced, talented people and getting them confirmed by the Senate. As in the past, the Soviets seem inclined to deal with a known President rather than with an unknown successor. If Reagan can conclude an arms agreement, the Senate will ratify it.

If the President does not pursue a statesmanlike course in foreign policy, yearned for by allied leaders and by all but the Republican right and Democratic neo-conservatives, it will be because he chooses not to do so. This should not be surprising. It comports with Reagan’s emphasis during the last six years on domestic, not foreign, policy--that is, to reduce the role of government in the lives of the American people. To see the Iran-contras affair as somehow crippling U.S. foreign policy begs the question as to whether Reagan would have exercised leadership in centrist policies under other circumstances. Save for arms control, where he can still be the master, there is no basis for a positive answer.


Something more basic is involved. After a period of somnolence, the nation seems to be waking up to the knowledge that the United States has been living off its past successes in foreign policy, and that there is work to be done abroad to secure U.S. interests that have been neglected. The Iran-contras affair is merely the moment, and only part of the stimulus, for ending the national reverie.

Ronald Reagan has always been good at sensing the national mood. Even now, if he will sense the need for foreign-policy leadership, he has all the latitude that he needs in the next two years to make his mark as a great statesman. Whether that happens will be determined by him, not by political circumstance.