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Only Strength at Home Sustains Reagan Abroad

November 20, 1986|GEOFFREY SMITH | Geoffrey Smith is political columnist for the Times of London. He is on a lecture tour of the United States.

President Reagan's credit with his European allies has obviously been hurt by the Iranian hostage deal. But how severe and lasting will the damage be?

That some loss will remain is beyond question. Many allies feel that they have been misled. They find it extraordinary that the very Administration that has been subjecting them to sometimes intense pressure to take strong measures against states involved with terrorism should itself have been sending arms to just such a regime.

The distinction that the President drew between negotiating with Iran and bargaining with the terrorists themselves is not one that will carry much conviction in Europe.

Allied governments such as Great Britain, which have themselves been acting against terrorism, are bound to be privately dismayed. The United States has failed to live up to the rigorous principles that it and they proclaim. That is true, even if the case is accepted for attempting to put relations with Iran on a new footing.

In general, confidence has been undermined in the Administration's judgment and strength of purpose. That is a serious matter, because the European allies depend ultimately for their security on the capacity of American leaders to display good sense and determination in graver crises than this.

But even before the present storm blew up, the respect that Reagan commanded within the Western alliance did not rest on his reputation as an international strategist. He has in fact always appeared a rather bewildering contradiction to most Europeans. He has never been regarded as having much detailed grasp of the subtleties of international affairs. He has never shown the same intuitive understanding of public opinion abroad as he has at home.

Confidence in his judgment was not particularly high with the general public in Europe even before there was any hint that he had been negotiating with Iran.

Allied leaders have been won over by his charm, but it is doubtful if they have been similarly impressed by his knowledge.

For British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher there is the great benefit of having a President whose political instincts she shares. But it is Reagan's immense popularity in the United States and his ability up to now to win the approval of the American public in any crisis that have persuaded most Europeans that he is a remarkable President. They have been forced to appreciate how formidable a politician he is.

This is a very important consideration for European governments. If they are to do business effectively with the United States it must be through a strong President. They cannot negotiate with Congress. So a President who cannot deliver is a perpetual frustration.

Reagan has been able to deliver. When he has said that he is against trade protection, for example, he has not then been forced to mumble apologetically that he cannot stop it. His political strength at home has given him diplomatic clout abroad.

It is the belief that he truly speaks for the American people that has given Reagan weight with allied leaders. They respect him as a politician even if they do not praise him as a statesman.

What has happened now is that the weakness that Europeans always suspected has, in their eyes, been confirmed. They always doubted that he had a deep understanding of international affairs. Now they are sure that his judgment is uncertain.

But the critical question for his future standing with European leaders is whether his particular strength has been undermined. A Los Angeles Times poll found that only 14% of the American people believe Reagan's statement about not swapping arms for hostages to be "essentially" true. Does he then have the confidence of the American people?

If he does have it, he will remain a commanding figure on the international stage. The episode will have saddened America's friends abroad. It will have provided fresh ammunition to those who are anti-American on other grounds. It will have increased still further the desire of allied governments for consultation before significant steps are taken on foreign or especially defense policy.

But a President of the United States who has not only the authority of his office but also the public support that Reagan has enjoyed will always have influence with allied governments.

Reagan would not, it is true, be able to do what Richard M. Nixon did. When the Nixon presidency was crumbling, the partnership that he shared with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger still commanded such respect for its international expertise that American diplomatic capacity was sustained to a surprising degree.

So Reagan has essentially the one battle to fight: to convince the American people. If he fails to do that, he does not have the personal standing in the world that would ensure his continued authority internationally while his power melted at home.

But if he can keep control of American public opinion, his influence with other countries should not be affected too seriously. Allied governments would marvel at his political ingenuity once again, and accept that his power remained.

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