GOP: Right Turns From the Summit

Kevin Phillips is publisher of the American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

Angry rhetoric from the far right notwithstanding, there is little chance that the Republican Party will tear itself to pieces over Ronald Reagan's Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty and the just-completed U.S.-Soviet summitry. The forces out to block the treaty--a dozen hard-line senators and the "anti-appeasement alliance"--simply do not represent a large enough force of opinion.

But there are other perils lurking for the GOP amid the self-congratulations of summit salesmen who now think the party can profitably wear peacemaking laurels into the 1988 election campaign. Bluntly put: Important elements of the Republican foreign-policy Establishment are voicing long-held doubts about the President's lack of strategic awareness and policy depth. Ideological critics mouthing crude charges that Reagan is soft on appeasement aren't likely to be taken seriously; sophisticated foreign-policy experts hinting that he's soft on geopolitical expertise and weak on history probably should be.

This list includes people like ex-Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger and Alexander M. Haig Jr., ex-U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and several well-positioned senators. For the most part, they will oppose right-wing attempts to prevent INF Treaty ratification as pointless, unnecessarily divisive and an unintended boon to Moscow's propaganda efforts. But some are expected to develop reservations or caveats, and their unhappiness with the President's Hollywood approach to U.S.-Soviet diplomacy--"I don't resent his (Mikhail S. Gorbachev's) popularity or anything else. Good Lord, I co-starred with Errol Flynn once"--may inevitably begin to put some important personal weaknesses of the Reagan presidency into critical focus. The justification, of course, would be to restrain the President from hasty moves in new arms-control directions he's thought not really to understand. Yet the result could be to take much of the bloom off the political rose of Reagan's summitry.

On the INF Treaty itself, the basic balance of power has changed. The decision by Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas to back it is only one clear sign among many. Previously fence-sitting Republican senators are expected to develop one or two minor reservations to put their own fingerprints on the process and justify their shifting positions--but right-wing "anti-appeasement alliance" stalwarts seem to have been effectively isolated. With presidential candidate Dole backing the treaty, that means pro-treaty nomination contenders--Vice President George Bush as an enthusiast, Dole as a late-stage adherent--muster the backing of roughly 65%-75% of the Republican electorate versus just 20% who support the anti-treaty candidates--Haig, Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, Marion G. (Pat) Robertson and Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV.

Last week's events, and the little bit of polling data available, give no indication that the right's 20% is about to mushroom into 30% or 40% based on anti-Soviet outrage. On the contrary. The anti-INF forces of 1987-88 don't seem any larger than the kindred group that 15 years ago broke their lances in an unsuccessful attempt to block President Richard M. Nixon's 1972 U.S.-Soviet detente policies and opening of U.S. relations with China.

This raises a particularly ironic caution for 1988: The doubts are being raised about Reagan's neo-detente diplomacy by key architects of Nixon-era U.S.-Soviet detente, such as Kissinger and Haig. A decade and a half ago, the Reaganite conservatives were the chief Republican opponents of dealing with the Soviets, Nixonian geopoliticians the advocates. Now the shoe is at least partly on the other foot. Some of the old Nixonians--despite their continuing pragmatic willingness to sit down with the Soviets--privately shudder at the unstrategic and even credulous way the Reagan Administration has pursued the INF Treaty. There is fear that the United States is really in a thinly disguised global retreat--one that Gorbachev is taking full advantage of by dealing with a scandal-embattled President who is bidding for the history books but rarely takes the trouble to read any.

This is the major caveat for the Republican Party in trying to take advantage of the INF Treaty and Reagan-Gorbachev summitry as a 1988 election boost. Historicly and geopolitically, it could be a walk on thin ice. Most Democrats are too prone to prostrate themselves before disarmament alters to pose obvious cold-blooded questions. But for those Americans who choose to be realistic, it's hard to credit a fundamental part of the Administration's thesis of strength. How can the INF Treaty and potential follow-up arms-control negotiations flow from a resurgent 1980s U.S. global prowess and a well-thought-out Reagan world strategy when there ain't no such animal?

Despite the President's mid-decade boast that "America is back," the reverse trend seems to be under way. U.S. weaknesses on a half-dozen other fronts almost certainly helped convince the Soviets that the time had come when Washington could be knit into an agreement that would begin dismantling the U.S. strategic military presence in Europe, starting with intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

After all, it would hardly require a massive KGB information search for Gorbachev to be aware of this country's Achilles' heels: the collapse of the once-proud dollar, the ever-increasing U.S. trade deficit and massive U.S. overseas borrowing. After seven years of the Reagan Administration, it's Japan that now boasts the world's largest banks, investment firms, advertising agencies and stock market capitalization. Some U.S. comeback.

It's also highly relevant that this weakness has spilled over into Pentagon budget-making. Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci III is already making plans for further reduction in the 1989 fiscal year budget, the fourth straight year that defense spending has fallen from its $315 billion peak in 1985.

In a kindred vein, restive U.S. allies all over the world are calling for the elimination or down-sizing of U.S. military bases in the Philippines, Turkey, Greece, Spain and Portugal's mid-Atlantic Azores island group. Indeed the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, run by former Reagan White House chief political aide Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., has just finished a disturbing catalogue of global U.S. military base erosion--down 75% from World War II levels and down 30% even from U.S. circumstances at the end of the Vietnam War. It's also clear from the last North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting--to say nothing of U.S. budget deficit realities--that neither Europe nor the United States is going to spend the necessary money to beef up conventional forces in Europe to make up for the U.S. nuclear missile withdrawal.

It all seems eminently precarious. Edward N. Luttwak, one of Washington's leading defense analysts, has gone so far as to imply that as the United States rings down the curtain on what he called the "nuclear era" of American military strategy it may be ringing down the curtain on America's own strategic pre-eminence. Luttwak worries, as do other geopolitical conservatives, that the United States has no follow-up strategy for a "post-nuclear era" in which the balance of power will change to favor the Soviets.

Americans rarely pay much attention to arcane arms-control issues in choosing a President and that will probably prove true again in 1988, present-day hoopla notwithstanding. But if the INF Treaty and the President's new chumminess with "Mikhail" do become election issues next year, the impact could be more mixed than Administration image-mongers now believe. The GOP in the 1980s has built itself a new credibility on the issues of keeping America prosperous and strong. If the uncertainties of the post-stock market crash raise one set of doubts, the potential pitfalls of U.S.-Soviet summitry could raise another.

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