WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration's fiasco in Iran is seen as evidence of the President's failure as a policy-maker. But this setback says as much about U.S. foreign policy as about Ronald Reagan.
Not just this Administration but all others in the postwar period have ended their term under siege at home because of policies abroad. (The Kennedy Administration, because of its unusual and tragic end, of course does not fit the pattern.)
Harry S. Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952 in large measure because the Korean War so divided the nation. U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended the political career of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.
John F. Kennedy won the 1960 election over Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president, Richard M. Nixon, in part by exploiting foreign-policy mishaps in the last years of Eisenhower's term--the Soviet downing of the U-2 spy plane inside the Soviet Union, the "loss" of Cuba and mob attacks in Latin America on the vice president himself.
Later Nixon was driven from the White House by Watergate, itself rooted in Administration efforts to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the extent of U.S. policy failure in Indochina.
Detente and Henry A. Kissinger's duplicitous diplomacy put Gerald R. Ford on the defensive in 1976 against Jimmy Carter, who in turn never recovered from Reagan's charge in 1980 that Carter had sullied America's honor by his handling of the Iranian hostage crisis.
Now it is Reagan's turn. The effort of his aides to get the hostages home in time to have a favorable effect on the 1986 election has turned out disastrously.
What explains this inability of U.S. Presidents to finish their terms in office without facing a major foreign-policy crisis?
The major reason seems to be the determination of administrations to meet unreal public expectations involving foreign policy in time for the next election. All administrations believe they must demonstrate an ability to control the world the way, let us say, they control U.S. money supply.
Knowing that they or their parties will be punished in the coming election if they do not meet public expectations, Presidents have intervened repeatedly, and at times quite foolishly, in the internal affairs of Third World nations few U.S. officials adequately understand. They have committed U.S. troops in conflicts difficult to win. And they have regularly resorted to covert operations, sometimes of a most unsavory nature, in an effort to shift the odds in the U.S. favor in time for the next election.
Americans like to believe anything is possible. Every citizen can become President and no task is beyond this country's power if it sets its mind to a goal. But not everything is possible in foreign policy, nor is every crisis controllable. Much depends on the actions of others. And a foreign policy that blindly refuses to recognize limits will periodically fail.
Americans, however, do not like to acknowledge this truism. Instinctively we look for institutional solutions to what are policy problems. So, as expected, the Reagan Administration's response to the current crisis is to appoint, amid universal praise, a three-man commission headed by former Sen. John G. Tower to look into ways to ensure that in future the National Security Council will not violate the laws of the land, as it did in the Iranian arms sale, or intrude on the responsibilities of other government agencies.
Alternatively, some believe that the kinds of problems revealed by the Iran debacle can be eliminated by massive personnel changes. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), has, for instance, suggested that Reagan follow the example of Philippines President Corazon Aquino and demand the collective resignation of his Cabinet, thereby giving him the opportunity to alter his Administration across-the-board.
But institutional and personnel change, while helpful, will not go to the root of America's foreign-policy problem--the nation's inability to accept limits to its power and to define precisely its interests.
Candidates preparing for 1988 could do the country a service if they began to discuss such questions.
Is Nicaragua really as important as Mexico? Is the effort to destabilize Angola more important than cementing better ties with the rest of Africa? Is U.S. interest in Western Europe so great that it is impossible to insist that the Europeans do more for their own defense?
This is the kind of foreign-policy debate the country has never had--and desperately needs.