• U.S.

THE PRESIDENCY: Gulliver Is Up and Around

4 minute read
Hugh Sidey

Without power there is no policy. American survival and good works have been and are rooted in that principle, which is occasionally ignored but never escaped. The debate in Washington now centers on power—principally military power, but also the power that is real, contrived or imagined in the presidential process.

Jimmy Carter, who only a few months ago was acting the Gulliver bound by the Lilliputians from Congress, has in the past few weeks impressed the world with a few nods, a spoken O.K. or two and some marginal notes scribbled on his option papers. Suddenly the pitiful giant is up and around.

Or is he? Those 23 warships off the Persian Gulf, cradling more firepower than all our vessels of World War II, seem to have sunk out of sight. The American hostages are still being held in Iran. The allies continue to run around in circles instead of bolstering our position. Outrages like the ambush killing of four Americans by Turkish leftists in Istanbul last week are threatening to become commonplace. Molasses in December.

Useful thoughts come from the nation’s top kibitzer on Washington’s K Street, Henry Kissinger. 1) the American President still has more discretionary power in the short run than any other man in the world, and 2) maintaining political authority through which the power is brought to bear is far more difficult over the extended course.

Convulsive postwar events like those in Greece, Turkey, Berlin, Lebanon and the Suez that confronted Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower led to swift responses that added up to a sense of American resolve. John Kennedy had some of that in his first year. Viet Nam was different, and the old strategy of trying to get in and out quickly failed.

Richard Nixon’s opening to China and his detente with the Soviets were, in their way, creative and peaceful substitutes for crisis. Power balances changed and much of the world paused in other mischief to watch and wait.

For many reasons Jimmy Carter was viewed as a passive President and U.S. influence wilted as he plodded along a fairly peaceful course with nothing much to offer but homilies. Carter himself was one of those who judged that the U.S. President did not have the old-style clout. Then came the October weekend when he decided to let the Shah of Iran come to the U.S. for medical treatment. He had little notion that he was about to enter the world of short-term discretionary power.

At first Carter was stunned by what he had unleashed through a fairly casual process. He and his aides lapsed into their old habit of cataloguing all the things they could not do. But events would not allow it.

There began in the White House what one Carter confidant calls “a circular process.” From early morning until pillow-talk time, the President accumulated information and ideas that demanded yes or no. He repeated the routine each day. The number of suggestions and ideas increased. Suddenly, admits a Carter aide, they found the President had more things he could do—more power—than he had believed. The process fed on itself. Confidence and enthusiasm grew. Iranian oil imports were ended, assets were frozen, allies badgered, the U.N. pressured, a fleet moved. Two weeks ago, the plan to get observers in to see the hostages evolved and step by step the pressure of opinion and appeal was orchestrated. The White House kept trying and finally found another haven for the Shah. There will be new twists and turns in this sad drama, but at the moment there is a sense that the White House has discovered it is leading a great power instead of a religious revival. The nation feels it too.

But if this course is extended much more, then the second part of the Kissinger theorem of power will come into play. How Carter responds to the long haul will determine American effectiveness around the globe for years. Last week when the President announced his new military plans he did not seem to be overjoyed at the prospect of buying more arms. But there was a somber exhilaration in his manner suggesting that he had at last found the place where some of the presidential power is stored.

Hugh Sidey

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