Mixed Success in Mideast, Africa : Hard Line With Soviets Led to Better Relations

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Times Staff Writer

When George P. Shultz was asked during a congressional hearing what had given him the most satisfaction as secretary of state, he described a telephone call from Jewish activist Ida Nudel informing him that she had reached Jerusalem after years of fighting for permission to leave the Soviet Union.

Nudel, her departure apparently the result of a thaw in Moscow’s frozen approach to human rights, seems to personify the most striking achievement of President Reagan’s eight-year stewardship of American foreign policy--a new and far more businesslike relationship with the Soviet Union.

Reagan, who began his term with a massive military buildup and an attack on the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” has more recently achieved renewed progress on arms control, an unprecedented dialogue with the Soviets on human rights and serious discussion between the superpowers about regional conflicts.


He scored his single biggest foreign policy success when, after eight years of tensions, Olympic boycotts and grain embargoes over the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Moscow agreed this year to withdraw its forces from that nation.

The new relationship with the Soviets has surprised Reagan’s liberal critics and left some of his conservative supporters shaking their heads. Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser in Gerald R. Ford’s Republican Administration, said that Reagan’s embrace of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev will “make it very difficult for the next President to maintain a position of sufficient vigilance against the Soviet Union.”

But both Vice President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Republican and Democratic candidates for the White House, have endorsed the broad outlines of Reagan’s Soviet policy, virtually guaranteeing that it will outlast the President who put it in place.

Possible Bush Liability

Strangely, Reagan’s opening to Moscow may prove to be a political liability for Bush. Reagan’s vice president has indicated that he will be more hawkish in his campaign, a strategy that may fall flat if the public believes that the danger from the Soviet Union has subsided.

Similarly, other aspects of Reagan’s foreign policy legacy may not be welcomed by the next President. But they will establish the agenda that Reagan’s successor will have to address, whether he likes it or not.

--By deploying U.S. military force on the island of Grenada, in Lebanon and in the Persian Gulf, Reagan has exorcised much of the “Vietnam syndrome,” a national angst about the use of military might to pursue diplomatic objectives. Even though the Beirut adventure ended in fiasco and the Persian Gulf operation has been marred by erroneous, fatal attacks both on and by the United States, the next President can expect to have a freer hand to take action when he deems it necessary.


Few Results in Nicaragua

--Reagan’s policy of providing U.S. backing for insurgents fighting Communist regimes achieved an uneven record, contributing to the major U.S. success in Afghanistan but producing far fewer results in Nicaragua. The issue of continuing or ending American support for the rebels in Nicaragua will provide one of the early challenges to the new Administration.

--After years of a largely hands-off approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Administration began a major initiative in early 1988, but it yielded few concrete results. With the continuing Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the next President must move quickly to establish his own approach to the conflict.

--Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policy toward southern Africa contributed to an agreement reached just this month calling for independence for Namibia and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. But, on the far more emotional issue of South African apartheid, the policy was judged impotent by blacks and hostile by whites, and the new President will face pressures to modify it.

--In the process of concentrating on southern Africa, the Administration gave only passing attention to the worsening economic crisis gripping most of Africa. The next President surely will have to address Africa’s debt, famine and poverty both for humanitarian reasons and for the stability of the international economic system.

Iran a Humiliating Failure

--Reagan’s ill-fated overture to the revolutionary government in Iran, which resulted in the most humiliating failure of his presidency, will plague the next President even though both Bush and Dukakis have made clear that they would not resume shipment of arms to Tehran. The Iran-Contra scandal will make it far more difficult for a future President to restore normal relations with Iran because of a domestic political backlash against any attempt to identify and contact Iranian moderates.

The changes in U.S.-Soviet relations were made almost totally on Reagan’s terms. His 1982 “zero option,” calling for removal of medium-range missiles from Europe, initially was rejected out of hand by the Soviets and ridiculed by American critics as hopelessly naive, but Reagan and Gorbachev signed a treaty in 1987 embodying that plan.


On a wider scale, the Soviet Union has accepted Reagan’s four-part agenda for superpower discussions--arms control, regional conflicts, bilateral relations and human rights. There was no such agreed agenda when Reagan took office and Soviet officials scornfully rejected American protests of human rights abuses as interference in Moscow’s internal affairs.

“The goals that (Reagan) set almost eight years ago are remarkably close to today’s agenda in U.S.-Soviet relations,” said Prof. Condoleezza Rice of Stanford University.

“A lot of us (American Sovietologists) thought that Reagan was pursuing a very high-risk strategy toward the Soviet Union, that the Soviets would simply harden their positions if presented with a challenge. But Reagan has really brought us a long way and strengthened the bipartisan center.”

Gives Gorbachev Credit

Rice is quick to add, however, that the thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations coincided with Gorbachev’s assumption of power in Moscow. “Without Gorbachev,” she said, “those goals would not have been realized.”

By contrast, former Deputy CIA Director George Carver said that Reagan “deserves full marks” for the turn in Washington-Moscow relations. But Carver said he is concerned that Reagan’s successors may learn the wrong lessons.

“There is an American myth that, in dealing with the Soviets, you can achieve some sort of personal relationship between our President and their general secretary which will cause the general secretary to deviate from his own best interests,” said Carver, now a senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Reagan seems to have bought that now, not realizing that his progress is a result of the tough line of his first term.”


Reagan certainly softened his treatment of the Soviet Union. During his Moscow summit meeting last May, for example, he said that his characterization of the Soviet Union as an evil empire was a product of “another time, another era.” But he made very few substantive concessions to Moscow, while Gorbachev repeatedly accepted U.S. positions that his predecessors had resolutely spurned.

Support for Insurgencies

In spite of the warming trend in Washington-Moscow relations, Reagan has not changed his overall approach of measuring most of what goes on in the world by the yardstick of East-West rivalry. The Administration’s program of assisting anti-communist insurgents throughout the Third World--dubbed the Reagan Doctrine--was begun at a time of U.S.-Soviet hostility but has continued despite the improvement in superpower relations.

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former State Department and National Security Council expert on Soviet affairs, said that Gorbachev’s more relaxed approach to the United States “is to a considerable degree a result of what has come to be called the Reagan Doctrine.” The American support for anti-communist rebels, especially in Afghanistan, he said, “contributed to the bind the Soviets found themselves in.”

In addition to Afghanistan, Reagan supported insurgents in Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua. There, the results have not been so clearly favorable.

U.S. support for Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA forces in Angola may have helped push that government into accepting an agreement calling for independence for neighboring Namibia and for the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, although there is no proof.

Support for Khmer Rouge

In Cambodia, the United States has supported a non-communist coalition aligned with the brutal Khmer Rouge in the campaign to oust Vietnamese occupiers. Negotiations among the factions have just begun, and, if the Marxist Khmer Rouge, accused of killing millions of people in the mid-1970s, were to regain control of the government, it could become a major embarrassment to the United States.


And, in Nicaragua, the U.S.-backed Contras are facing an uphill fight for survival both on the ground and in the U.S. Congress. Unlike the Afghan moujahedeen, who had support across the American political spectrum, the Contras have become a divisive issue in U.S. politics.

Bush pledges to continue aid to the Contras, but Dukakis wants to cut it off. Opinion is so closely divided in Congress that the issue will remain controversial regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.

Scowcroft, analyzing the mixed results of the Reagan Doctrine, has concluded that the Administration’s success in Afghanistan reflects “what one can do if the country is united behind national objectives.”

Empire May Be Too Costly

The Soviet withdrawal, he said, may provide the first strong evidence of a Gorbachev conclusion that “the cost of empire may be too high . . . that, in (economic) basket-case countries like Afghanistan and Angola, maintaining an empire is a hole for funds which doesn’t represent a net gain.”

However, he predicted that Gorbachev will decide that support for Nicaragua is a good investment because “it gives us absolute fits for relatively low expenditures.”

In the Middle East, Reagan’s legacy includes a substantial diplomatic and military success in helping to produce a cease-fire in the war between Iran and Iraq, offset by the debacle of the Iran-Contra affair and the ill-fated deployment of Marines to Lebanon, where almost 240 were killed in a 1983 terrorist bombing.


And the Administration has nothing to show for its mediation efforts in the Arab-Israeli dispute, the first such diplomatic shut-out for an American government since the Arab-Israeli war in 1973.

Provided Aid to Iraq

Reagan adopted a two-track approach to the Iran-Iraq war, pushing for a cease-fire in the U.N. Security Council while providing assistance to Iraq through a program of deploying naval power to protect the oil shipments of Iraq’s ally, Kuwait. Iran and Iraq have agreed to a truce, effective Aug. 20.

Despite two tragic missile mistakes--the deadly attacks by an Iraqi jet on the Navy frigate Stark and by the Navy cruiser Vincennes on an Iranian civilian airliner--the U.S. naval deployment in the gulf receives high praise from Middle East experts.

William B. Quandt, a National Security Council staff member in President Jimmy Carter’s Administration, said that seven or eight years ago there was a deep concern that Iran would win the war and dominate the region, that oil prices would go through the roof or that the Soviets would increase their influence in the area.

“None of that happened,” Quandt said. “The (Reagan) policy worked very well. There were some little glitches, but, when they might have been tempted to do the wrong thing, they didn’t.”

Scowcroft called Reagan’s dispatch of an armada to the gulf a successful demonstration “of the use of military power to accomplish diplomatic ends. . . . We sent the fleet in to keep the Soviets out of the region and, more importantly, because we did not want Iran to win that war.”


Arab-Israeli Issue Continues

But the Reagan Administration will leave its successor with a festering Arab-Israeli dispute, aggravated by the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation and virtually untouched by eight years of on-and-off U.S. diplomatic efforts. “The Reagan Administration has not made a dent in the Arab-Israeli problem,” Quandt said.

In four Middle East trips this year, Shultz pinned his hopes for a settlement on Israeli moderates led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein. His failure to produce any results apparently contributed to Hussein’s decision to cut his ties to the West Bank, in effect torpedoing Shultz’s plan to use Hussein as the primary Arab spokesman.

And the deadlock seems to have weakened Peres’ position in Israel’s fractious internal politics.

Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policy toward southern Africa appeared to produce a success this month when South Africa, Angola and Cuba agreed on a formula calling for independence for South Africa-ruled Namibia and for the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola. But that achievement was overshadowed by a continuing controversy over the U.S. response to South Africa’s apartheid policy of racial segregation.

Congress Imposed Sanctions

In 1986, Congress overrode Reagan’s veto and imposed economic sanctions against the white minority regime in Pretoria. However, black leaders in Africa--joined by some civil rights groups in the United States--labeled the action as unacceptably weak, while the white minority government in Pretoria denounced it as an interference in South Africa’s internal affairs.

Pauline Baker, an Africa expert on the staff of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the Administration’s concentration on southern Africa, to the virtual exclusion of the rest of the continent, may result in an early crisis for the next President.