Grinning and waving for the cameras, hollering over a helicopter engine, quipping cheerfully at a news conference: that was the Ronald Reagan the world saw last week, an old trouper still going through the motions that once typified his seemingly effortless power as president. But those heady days are long past. With only 14 months left in office and the Iran-contra albatross slung heavily around his neck, the 76year-old Reagan, apparently out of political magic, stumbled through a decidedly dismal week.
On Monday the New York stock market plunged an astounding 508 points, its worst day in history, and when Reagan tried to offer reassurances, world markets simply took another slide (page 34). In the Persian Gulf, retaliating for an Iranian missile attack on a U.S.-registered tanker, American warships bombarded an insignificant Iranian oil installation—and succeeded in provoking another attack by Tehran (page 25). And in a bitter blow at week’s end, the U.S. Senate, by a vote of 58 to 42, rejected Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork as a Supreme Court justice.
But the unkindest cut of all came from Moscow. On Friday afternoon U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, after two days of meetings with Soviet officials, told a news conference that the superpowers had failed to reach a final agreement on an accord abolishing both sides’ mediumand shorter-range missiles. Nor, said the sombre-looking secretary, had they set a date for a Washington summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at which such a deal could be signed. The impasse, following a much-celebrated agreement-in-principle in September, was strikingly reminiscent of the outcome of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit one year ago in Reykjavik. Once again, U.S. officials, after being openly optimistic, appeared wholly unprepared for the stunning setback. And once again, the chief stumbling block was Reagan’s controversial pet project: the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDl), the space-based missile system known as Star Wars.
At week’s end, the exact details of the latest debacle remained as shrouded as Moscow itself, which was engulfed in its worst fog in 107 years. But one point was painfully clear: the staunchly anticommunist Reagan had been forced to look to the Kremlin, of all places, for a success that might save him from becoming the lamest of lame ducks—and
assure him a peacemaker’s place in history. Gorbachev, obviously aware of Reagan’s desire and his deepening political crisis, may have decided to press for more concessions. Said Leon Aron, a Soviet analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation: “He is trying to milk the situation for the maximum benefit that he can extract.”
Other experts, however, maintained that the Kremlin’s intransigence may have sprung from internal pressures in the Soviet Union. Some Soviet hard-liners are wary of Gorbachev’s plan to cap military spending and concentrate on modernizing the stagnant Soviet economy. And on the S eve of Shultz’s visit, § the 307-member Central g Committee held a secrey tive plenum that may Ö have decided to stiffen | arms control policy.
£ Certainly the Soviets
made an abrupt reversal. After Reykjavik they had appeared to drop their insistence on a link between Star Wars and any other missile deal, clearing the way for a separate peace under the socalled global double-zero option; that proposal calls for the elimination of all nuclear weapons with ranges of 300 to 3,400 miles in both Europe and Asia. The prospective treaty would be the first superpower arms accord in nearly
a decade and the first ever to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. However, technical issues remained to be worked out, and at week’s end, Shultz said that the two sides were still dickering over verification procedures. And confounding U.S. expectations, Gorbachev had again tied the limited arms accord to progress on Star Wars.
Moscow, Shultz said on Oct. 23, insisted that as a precondition for a summit, the two powers must first outline principles for another treaty that would limit both longerrange or strategic nuclear arms and SDI. At Reykjavik—before clashing over Star Wars—
Reagan and Gorbachev had agreed on slashing both sides’ arsenals of strategic weapons by 50 per cent. According to Shultz, Gorbachev said last week that he would send a letter to Reagan
soon—one that would presumably outline his latest proposals. “I suppose the next thing that we will do,” Shultz said, “is keep checking the mailman and see if he brings a letter.”
The battle lines over Star Wars are plainly drawn. While some scientists doubt that the futuristic program is technically feasible, Reagan reiterated last week that he believes it “can be perfected.” Once in place, he maintains,
it would be purely defensive, serving as a shield against strategic missiles. Soviet officials, however, say that an operative SDI could be used offensively, giving Washington the ability to launch a first strike without fear of reprisal. Recently, the Soviets have shifted the focus of their opposition from denouncing Star Wars to calling for an additional 10 years’ adherence to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which would delay SDI deployment. Washington has agreed on what Shultz has called the “concept” of a nonwithdrawal period. But Reagan has endorsed a liberal interpretation of the treaty that would allow for advanced testing of SDI, and Shultz acknowledged last week
that the debate over the o terms of the treaty “is § probably the most important area at issue.” Some analysts down-
played last week’s breakdown. State department officials in Washington insisted that the medium-range deal would almost surely be signed in the next few months. And External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, after being briefed along with other NATO foreign ministers by Shultz in Brussels on Saturday, said that he thought an agreement on medium-range missiles could be reached within one to three weeks. Clark added that such a deal could be achieved without the United States modifying its position on SDI. A superpower summit, he said, has been “set back rather than set off.”
The tough Soviet stance derailed a palpable sense of U.S. optimism before the Moscow meeting. “I’m sure we’ll make headway on arms control,” Shultz told reporters before leaving Helsinki, where he had met with arms control experts. “The only question is how much.” When the fog descended on Moscow, closing airports and stranding sleepless travellers, Shultz was so eager to keep his appointment with Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze that he arranged for a special train to transport him and his 130-member entourage through the cold Finnish night. Some 1,300 km and 14 hours later the U.S. party reached fogged-in Moscow and proceeded straight to an elegant official mansion. There, in restored baroque splendor, Shevardnadze seemed to confirm U.S. hopes, telling Shultz that while difficult issues remained to be resolved they “are insubstantial when compared to the obstacles you had to overcome to get from Helsinki to Moscow.”
Throughout Shultz’s two days of meetings with Shevardnadze and Gorbachev, officials on both sides appeared markedly upbeat. Gorbachev himself said that he expected to attend a summit in Washington. And Reagan— whose one bit of good news last week was that his wife, Nancy, was recovering well from breast-cancer surgery— told a news conference in Washington that when Gorbachev comes to sign the arms accord he hopes the Soviet leader will “have time to see a great deal of America.” That included Reagan’s sprawling vacation home in Santa Barbara, Calif.—to “let him see how a capitalist spends his holidays,” the President said. It was a typical Reagan quip, the kind that once won him such widespread approval. But when negotiations stalled in Moscow the following day, dealing the administration yet another bruising embarrassment, Reagan’s joke seemed further evidence that the President was out of touch, out of luck—and fast running out of time.
BOB LEVIN with CATHERINE REDDEN in Moscow, WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and PETER LEWIS in Brussels
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.