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Breaking the Ice : With Daniloff Done, How Do We Read Reykjavik?

October 05, 1986|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA," is working on a history of strategic weapons

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — The resolution of the Daniloff case was a classic example of American diplomacy during the Reagan years--tough and uncompromising in public, ready to cut a deal in private. First we got the American journalist Nicholas S. Daniloff, then they got a convicted Soviet spy, then we we got two Soviet dissidents and finally both sides got a two-day pre-summit mini-summit next week in Iceland. Did anyone come out ahead in this whirlwind diplomatic scrimmage?

In Washington they're busy adding up the score cards and the early count looks like this: Ronald Reagan had to do something he said he'd never do--trade their guy for our guy (score one for Mikhail S. Gorbachev), but the Soviet Union had to sweeten the deal with Yuri F. Orlov and his wife, Irina L. Valitova (one for Reagan). Reagan wanted to meet later rather than sooner (one more for Gorbachev). On a deeper level, we stumbled badly when we tried to scare some caution into the Soviet espionage apparatus attached to the United Nations in New York by arresting one of their low-level operatives. If anybody is sucking burnt fingers from this affair it's the FBI, not the KGB (score two for Viktor Mikhailovich Chebrikov, the chairman of the KGB).

The wild card in the deal--worth 10 points at least, if we can decide who wanted it most--is the long-debated, oft-postponed meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev which the two leaders promised to hold "next year" when they first met last year. Does the Iceland meeting count? It's hard to say--both sides insist it's not a summit, but only preparation for a summit. Will the fact it's scheduled to take place only three weeks before the election put pressure on Reagan to come up with some sort of agreement on arms control--which Gorbachev insists is the price for a genuine summit? Or will it give Reagan a public-relations boost and let him put off till next year the hard decisions he must make before any sort of agreement can be reached--assuming he wants one? Finally, are the two sides just going through the motions, or is a significant new Soviet-American understanding struggling to be born?

The open questions surrounding this summit-by-another-name are not idle ones. The arms race and Soviet-American relations through the end of the century both hang on the outcome. This was easy to forget during the Daniloff affair, a characteristic "crisis" of the Reagan years. Most have been symbolic clashes over minor matters, noisy while they last but quickly forgotten, like the invasion of Grenada, the Soviet shoot-down of a Korean airliner, the bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, the U.S. air raid on Libya. Reagan has been the luckiest of Presidents and in some respects his six years in office have been like a glorious Indian summer. His admirers would probably say, "Of course the sailing has been smooth--his enemies don't dare mess with him."

Perhaps there's something to this, but real crises come from something harder to predict--the ferment of history. At the moment a potentially king-sized crisis is coming to a boil: The bitter six-year-long war between Iran and Iraq could spill out of its battlefield at the head of the Persian Gulf and threaten the oil states with a fundamentalist Islamic revolution. This is not the sort of thing Reagan might resolve with tough words, Hollywood charm or quiet promises of big money, and it's highly unlikely the Soviets would let him solve it by force. The Middle East is only one of several arenas where the Soviets and the Americans could be nose-to-nose between one day's newspaper and the next. Reagan has had no experience with serious crises and the rest of us, basking in the warmth of Indian summer, have forgotten how common they are. Soviet-American relations are better than they were a few years ago when the President was calling the other side an "evil empire," but they're pretty dismal all the same. This is a serious matter; in a crisis a reservoir of trust and good will--or the lack of them--could make all the difference.

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