Haig at the helm

Alexander Haig is off to a flying start. To no one's surprise, the new US secretary of state has moved in with vigor and professionalism to reestablish the State Department as the primary locus of American foreign policy. The change is welcome and overdue. It is no secret that the United States often lost credibility in the world and created confusion because it spoke with several voices. The problem has dogged more than one administration in recent years. Now Mr. Haig -- with President Reagan's strong backing -- is determined to see to it that the secretary of state and not the presidential national security adviser is the preeminent manager of and spokesman for US diplomacy.

It is premature to cheer, of course, for it remains to be seen how this works out in practice. The budding reforms at the While House -- for istance, the subordination of Richard Allen, director of the National Security Council, to presidential counselor Edwin Meese -- have to be tested. It is still uncertain what the shape and role of the NSC will be. Every president evolves an advisory system with which he is comfortable. Ronald Reagan, who is inexperienced in foreign policy, will need time to feel his way to the most efficient method of handling this area of leadership.

But it can be said that the State Department is shaping up well under Mr. Haig's dynamic management. The secretary so far has made excellent appointments , surrounding himself with a group of knowledgeable, experienced professionals. He also reportedly has moved swiftly to propose certain organizational changes, such as placing oversight of international economic policy in the State Department. While some already accuse him of trying to make a grab for power, there is to doubt of the urgent need for centralized management of US economic policy abroad. Lack of it was a major weakness in the Carter administration. We cannot speak for Mr. Haig's political ambitions, but he does have an understanding of the organizational problems which have hampered conduct of a consistent, coordinated foreign policy.

If there are some misgivings about the new secretary of state, these revolve around whether his military staff-system background will prevent him from forcefully putting his views to the President if he happens to disagree with him and whether he will permit within the State Department full debate of issues that are controversial (and are any issues not?). Here again it is necessary to await events. But Mr. Haig's past performance suggests that, while he will demand loyal execution of decisions once they are made, he will seek full discussion of policies -- and share with his staff the information they need to carry them out. He must of course follow the general lead of his commander in chief, but we hope that this will not rule out honest argument.

One matter does concern us. Mr. Haig's manner during the Senate confirmation hearings left something to be desired. He responded to legitimate questions from Democratic committee members with what seemed condescension and occasional arrogance. Even the sensitive subject of Watergate did not warrant this. Moreover, if the State Department is to reassert itself, it will have to reverse the gradual usurpation of its powers not only by the NSC but by Congress. Knowing as he does the importance of good relations between the executive and the Congress, Mr. Haig will have to demonstrate his capacity for diplomacy no less on Capitol Hill than abroad.

As for the substance of US foreign policy, what we have seen so far points to more continuity with previous policy than may have been indicated in the campaign. That is as it should be. To be sure, the new secretary will likely put more stress on relations with Moscow and the NATO alliance, and we anticipate a tougher US posture. But the broad elements of diplomacy -- arms control, peace efforts in the Middle East, good relations with Peking -- remain in place. Even a human rights policy survives, though it obviously will be applied differently. If there are question marks, these concern the US approach toward Latin America, Africa, and other third-world regions, where the US will confront difficult problems in the next decade. Secretary Haig has little experience in these areas.

But this is a moment to applaud the good start made. It is clear Mr. Haig will be a dominant member of the Reagan administration. As an activist secretary, he can be expected to bring bureaucratic orderliness to the State Department and to restore to it the paramount -- if not exclusive -- role it should have. The period ahead, in short, could prove to be a vigorous and fruitful one for American foreign policy.

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