Muskie's mission

Secretary of State Edmund Muskie faces his first diplomatic test this week as he confers in Europe with allied foreign ministers and also with his Soviet counterpart on such crucial issues as Iran and Afghanistan. He has a multiple task. One is to persuade the allies that, despite lapses of the past, the US intends to pursue a steady policy based on adequate consultaion and credibility. Another is to rally the allies to present a united stand -- as a signal to Iran that its continuing breach of international law is not acceptable and as a warning to the Soviet Union that the Western alliance is undivided in its determination to oppose communist aggression. And a third is to convince Andrei Gromyko that East-West relations cannot be put back on track as long as Soviet troops are brutalizing Afghanistan.

The tasks will not be easy.

The allies give signs they are not prepared to go along with the agreed-upon trade embargo of Iran if progress toward release of the hostages is not made by May 17. There is no denying the economic sacrifice a ban on exports would mean for the West Europeans; many have lucrative deals with Iran. But failure to show allied unity at this time would be unfortunate. While it is doubtful that economic sanctions will arm-twist Iran into giving up the hostages, it can be argued that a diplomatic solution is best fostered as Iran perceives the consequences of its growing isolation in the world.

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Nonetheless, applying full economic sanctions is a course questioned by many thoughtful Western scholars and diplomats. Some believe these would only push Iran into the hands of the Russians. This advice should not be taken lightly. The important thing is that the allies thoroughly discuss the issue and then demonstrate their resolve to deal with the crisis in concert.

Related to what course to pursue is the matter of US credibility, however, and Mr. Muskie has some repairing to do on this score. Publicly the West Europeans supported the US after the failed rescue mission in Iran. But privately they resented having been misled by President Carter, who had promised he would take no military actions. The allied trade embargo was agreed to precisely because it would forestall the US resorting to force. In European eyes, the American "deception" was all the more galling following as it did on what had come to be a pattern of sudden and unilateral reverses of policy.

It goes without saying that the United States cannot expect to forge a consensus among its allies by erratic diplomacy. Such inconsistency and lack of integrity feed confusion and mistrust in the allied camp and thwart the very goal of unity the US seeks to achieve. Former Secretary Cyrus Vance was sensitive to this but his voice lost out in the White House. Mr. Muskie, it is hoped, will have the political stature to insist on solid consultations in reaching agreements with allies -- and on US probity in carrying them out.

Lastly, the new secretary will have his first opportunity to spar with the wily, determined, and long-experienced Mr. Gromyko. There is little doubt Washington and Moscow would like to back off from a dangerous road of confrontation. Mr. Muskie, a strong supporter of SALT, can assure the foreign minister he will go to bat for the treaty in the Senate and this renewed chance for success may help the Vienna get-together. But continued soviet occupation of Afghanistan is the issue which must be resolved before there can be an easing of East-West tensions. Whether a West European proposal for the neutralization of Afghanistan has any attraction for the men in the Kremlin is something Mr. Muskie will want to find out.

One thing is clear. While the Iran hostage crisis remains a serious diplomatic problem, it is the larger question -- the West's ability to face up to and deal with the Soviet Union's enhanced military power and the political implications of it -- which must now occupy center stage. The world will be watching to see if Edmund Muskie is a quick learner.

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