7 FEBRUARY 1981, Page 10

Who is the hawk?

Bohdan Nahaylo

'The Reagan Administration has opened with a verbal barrage against the Soviet Union' The Times leader column reported last Saturday. The new President, it claimed, 'wants the world to know that there is now a tough guy in the White House'. On the previous day a description in the Guardian of President Reagan's 'tough gtance' towards Moscow was given the headline 'anti-Soviet stance'. If the headlines in the British press are anything to go by, all the predictions and fears about Reagan's 'hawk' and 'cold war' mentality have already been justified.

There are of course two sides to any story, and before passing judgment it is worth looking at the background to the present acrimony in US-Soviet relations and in particular to examine Soviet behaviour towards the Americans in the weeks before and after the US presidential election. In fact it seems that Moscow is itself much to blame for last week's broadside from the White House. By their singular lack of tact and ill-timed provocations, the Soviet authorities negated their preliminary gestures of goodwill towards the incoming American administration and effectively ensured that US-Soviet relations would be at a very low ebb when it took office. Even if President Reagan had wanted to open on a more conciliatory tone, he was left with little option but to use some of the toughest language ever used by an American president to condemn Soviet behaviour.

Last year's American presidential campaign took place against the background of, among other pressing problems, those of the hostages being held in Iran and the collapse of 'détente' following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although the Soviet press had nothing positive to say about President Carter, for most of the campaign it portrayed Reagan as a 'knight of the cold war', who according to a description in Pravda on 19 July 1980, viewed the world 'through the sights of a sub-machine gun'. Reagan, it will be recal led, consistently urged a firmer line towards the Soviet Union, reminiscent of President Gerald Ford's avowed preference for 'a policY of peace through strength'. The SALT 2 agreement, the presidential con tender argued, for example, should be re-negotiated in order to obtain better terms for the USA. Moreover, he stressed his commitment to the strategy of 'linkage' — a term associated with Henry Kissinger during the Nixon-Ford administration, and publicly rejected by President Carter.

As the presidential election drew closer, Pravda informed its readers on 1 November that both candidates 'are putting in first place the interests of the military-industrial complex, which is in favour of the arms race and a foreign policy based on a "position of strength". On the next day the Soviet news agency TASS reported that Carter 'has overtly begun to utter chauvinistic and ultra-patriotic sentiments', while Reagan 'has adopted an even more extreme and militaristic standpoint'. As soon as the outcome of the election was known, however, the Soviet tone towards Reagan began to change. 'The nearer we came to the finishing post', Pravdalnoted on 7 November, 'the more moderate the Republican candidate's utterances became'. During the Reagan-Carter television debate, the newspaper belatedly revealed, although Reagan had not proposed any concrete programme, 'a certain impression was made — and, according to all the opinion polls, extra votes gained — by his declaration that, as one who had lived through many wars, he opposes a nuclear holocaust and is in favour of talks with the Russians'.

Now, despite Reagan's pre-election pledges, the Soviet authorities appear to have inexplicably misinterpreted his election victory as a defeat for what they regarded as Carter's 'anti-detente' policies. Moscow radio's Washington correspondent _told Soviet listeners that 'in voting against Carter, the voters came out, too, against the administration's foreign policy, which was marked by acceleration of the arms race, departure from the principles of relaxation of tension, and a turn to the course of hostile relations with the Soviet Union'. According to TASS, American voters had 'rejected the provocative stand over détente'. The Soviet authorities thus seem to have somehow misread the prevalent mood in America and missed the point completely. American voters were not signalling the rejection of Carter's foreign policy on the grounds that it was too hostile to the Soviet Union, but rather the opposite.

During the rest of November there were several hopeful signs from both the Soviet Government and Reagan's aides that they would be willing to work to improve relations. In his congratulatory message to Reagan on 6 November, and in a speech at a Kremlin reception on 17 November, the Soviet leader, President Brezhnev, informed the American president-elect that 'any constructive steps by the US administration in the sphere of Soviet-American relations' would be met with a positive response on the part of the Soviet Union. Not long afterwards, President Brezhnev met with the next chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate, Republican Senator Charles Percy — his first such meeting with a senior American politician since before the invasion of Aghanistan in December, 1979 — and emphasised that the Soviet Union was in favour of 'strengthening and developing relations with the United States on a permanent basis'.

However, on the eve of the inauguration of the new president, the Soviet authorities infuriated American public opinion by suddenly intervening during the last stages of Washington's negotiations with Iran to secure the release of the hostages. On 16 January the Soviet media, citing a variety of foreign sources, announced that the United States was preparing for 'military aggression against Iran' in order either to free the hostages or force the Iranians to accept American terms. Although US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie summoned Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that very day and demanded 'an immediate end to the scurrilous propaganda', the Soviet media persisted in repeating this charge.

Then, almost immediately after the hostages had been released, the Soviet press launched another attack on the United States. The CIA and State Department were accused of 'brainwashing' the released, captives to promote stories of 'brutalities and 'violence' at the hands of the Iranians. The American authorities, it was claimed, were preparing domestic and foreign opinion for a fresh attempt to impose a!1 'imperialist diktat' on the Iranians. This time, however, it was the new Reagan administration which had to refute the neW Soviet accusations. The very fact that Moscow had chosen to initiate a vitriolic campaign at such a sensitive period for the United States killed any possibility of restrained overture from President Reagan. Consequently, when several days later he and his Secretary of State, Alexander Hal8; held their first press conferences, they did not pull their punches. It is not clear why the Soviet leadershiP switched from a relatively conciliatorY position to an antagonistic one. Possibly, with the approach of the Islamic summit conference in Saudi Arabia, Moscow wanted to draw attention away from the problem of Afghanistan to the broader question of security in the Persian Gulf and of American intentions in that area. Some commentators have even suggested that Moscow was simply repaying the Americans for their frequent warnings that the Soviet Union was preparing to invade Poland. Whatever the reason, the Soviet authorities were seen by the new adminis tration in Washington as having fired the first salvo.

When the response came, President Reagan and his aides seemed determined to get the record straight in clear and unambiguous language. In condemning Soviet behaviour, they stated what previous American administrations have believed to be true but had not said quite as openly. The message, following for once the practice of the Soviet Union, was unrestrained and blunt.