Mr. Muskie's urbanity

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When the new US secretary of state, Edmund Muskie, learned that French President Giscard d'Estaing had gone to Warsaw to see Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev without having first informed his allies, Mr. Muskie made a clear, concise, and precise comment:

"I am concerned that when I was being given a lecture on consultation, that the lecturer was not inclined to practice what he was preaching."

It is a reasonable guess that the French President will not soon lecture Mr Muskie on alleged US shortcomings in the department of informing allies in advance of surprise moves. Either that, or he will inform Mr. Muskie in advance.

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There is a refreshing urbanity and dignity about the things Mr. Muskie has been saying since he became secretary of state.

The weightiest problem on his shoulders from the moment he took up his new duties at the State Department has been to develop a balanced position on US relations with the Soviet Union. On the one hand he must do what he can to encourage the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. On the other, he should manage to keep a door open for a possible resumption of useful business between the two superpowers.

He has handled this by recognizing as a plain fact that there is no realistic chance of any action in the Senate on SALT II "unless something is done to reassure the American people about Afghanistan, and I can see nothing short of a withdrawal of troops that would do that."

But he also noted that "the fact that we are engaged in this kind of a confrontation in Afghanistan to me elevates the question of arms control as an important security issue."

He added that he thought that the issue of Soviet troops in Afghanistan and the issue of arms control "are separable" and that he has under review possible ways and means of getting back to talks with the Soviets about the control of nuclear weapons.

In these remarks he did not detract from the gravity which the US government attaches to the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, but he left the door open for the future when relations between the two countries may have improved from their present low. No trained diplomat could have produced a better balance. Mr. Muskie is not a trained diplomat, but his years in the Senate amount to the same thing.

Common sense came out particularly in his attitude to the affair of former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark whose behavior in Tehran seemed unpardonably offensive to many of his compatriots and caused President Carter to suggest the possibility of prosecution by the Department of Justice. Mr. Muskie took a different approach to the matter.

He noted that the purpose of a regulation forbidding travel to Iran is primarily to protect Americans from the danger of traveling where there is strong anti-American hostility. He added that the purpose "is not to punish people who violate it, but to prevent people from going." He added that if Mr. Clark and the others who made the unauthorized trip with him thought they had anything useful to communicate to the State Department he would be glad to hear from them.

Perhaps he would not repeat as secretary of state a remark he made about the Shah of Iran in February of this year. It would not be entirely diplomatic in his new capacity. But it bespeaks his willingness to accept things as they are:

"There is no question as a matter of record and a matter of history that the CIA was party to the overthrow of Mossadegh and the enthronement of Pahlavi on the throne of Iran. It is a matter of record. Now acknowledging that kind of a fact is not a mea culpam to me. Denying it would be to deny an historical truth."

A secretary of state who will stand up to a President of France and have an opinion about Ramsey Clark which differs from his own President's is a man of dignity and forthrightness. And when the same man can articulate foreign policy in a rational and coherent manner it is not surprising that his colleagues around the world are eager to meet with him, talk to him, and hear what he has to say.

Mr. Muskie is respected already on the foreign ministers' circuit.

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