There are almost as many changes under way in East-West relations these days as there are views about what the changes mean. In one case a change means that President Reagan did not follow his own script and that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may have to bail him out.
A year ago Spain's Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez promised to reduce America's military presence there if voters would agree to keep Spain in NATO. They did, by a bare 52%, and Gonzalez is keeping his end of the bargain by evicting the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing and its 72 F-16 jet fighters from their base just outside Madrid.
Spain remains in NATO--a good thing, but not good enough for the doomsday school of political philosophers. For them the change means only that Gonzalez has capitulated to the anti-American left in Spain--one more piece of evidence that NATO is coming unraveled.
The Reagan Administration obviously would like to keep the F-16s somewhere in Europe, but it can do so only if NATO finds another base and pays for moving the 401st to its new quarters. Otherwise the wing will be broken up and its planes farmed out to the Air National Guard. For one thing, Washington doesn't have the money. For another, Congress has slipped an amendment into the new budget saying that even if the money were on hand it could not be used to relocate the 401st.
Last year Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, complained that the first of a planned series of annual White House reports on American global strategy made pretty light reading. The President apparently did not take the document very seriously, either--at least the part that discusses a need to keep the economy strong enough to support a defense network large enough to carry out global strategy.
No matter how obliquely, Washington is facing up to the fact now that its economy cannot carry the defense load any longer. The services are trimming budgets--with more trims sure to come in the next budget, too.
Even "Star Wars," the President's notion of a space-based shield to protect the United States from nuclear attack, is taking its share of budget reductions.
The best that Washington can hope for is that NATO will realize during the three years that it will take to move the 401st out of Spain that it can no longer count on six dozen high-performance jets to pound away at troops that might invade Europe along NATO's southern flank.
The Pentagon also has sketched out a new strategy for defending Europe in the absence of the medium-range nuclear missiles that will be dismantled under the U.S.-Soviet agreement signed at last December's summit meeting.
Washington took it for granted during that summit meeting that scrapping nuclear weapons of any kind was part of a tacit understanding that neither country could sustain an arms race long enough to get ahead of the other. Failing to come up with enough money to move 72 airplanes is a less abstract way of making the same point.