The Reagan administration in Washington is doing better with its domestic economic policies than with its foreign policies. The former are making surprising progress through a surprised Congress. The latter have run into trouble on almost every front as campaign era rhetoric has run into conflicting fact.
The latest fact to come into conflict with campaign attitudes is the importance of oil from Nigeria. Nigeria is the second largest source of imported oil to the United States. In one recent year the US actually took more oil from Nigeria than from Saudi Arabia.
The Nigeria foreign minister, Ishaya Audu, has just visited WAshington. His visit has cooled an earlier Reagan idea of sending guns to the guerillas fighting against the existing government in Angola. It also stimulated a second look at the Namibia problem.
The Namibia problem is whether white South Africa will set up in South-West Africa a nominally black regime under white control or whether it will permit the black community to set up a truly independent government representative of the black majority.
Previous to Mr. Audu's visit Washington was expecting a later visit from Jonas Savimbi, who leads the guerrillas fighting against the Angola government. Mr. Savimbi enjoys white South African support. At an earlier date he had help from the US Central Intelligence Agency -- until Congress forbade any more.
During Mr. Audu's Washington visit it was stated that the Savimbi visit had been "postponed indefinitely."
Another fact had a bearing on future reagan administration policy in africa. Several important American corportions are doing profitable business in Angola in spite of Angola's self-styled Marxist policies and the presence of some 20, 000 Cuban troops. Gulf, cities Service, and Texaco are among the American companies involved. All three favor recognition of the present Angola regime and oppose any attempt to overthrow it by aiding Mr. Savimbi and his guerrillas.
Representatives of the American corporations say they are getting along well with the existing regime. They believe it would send the Cuban troops away, as it says it will, if and when the threat of intervention by white South Africa is removed.
When Nigeria, which is the largest, wealthiest, and most influential of the independent black African states, is joined by Gulf, Cities Service, and Texaco in making the same case, the reagan administration listens, puts off Mr. Savimbi's proposed trip, and takes a second look at the idea of adopting a pro-South Africa stance.
The plain fact is that the United States today does more business with black Africa than with white South Africa. So it looks very much as though the reagan administration is gradually swinging round in its attitudes toward African problems until it is much more nearly in line with those left behind by the carter administration. Hence this month's mission to southern Africa by Assistant Secretary of State-designate for Africa Affairs Chester A. Crocker.
This weekend US Secretary of State Alexander Haig sets off for the Middle East where he will encounter more facts getting in the way of campaign talk. His stops are Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Reagan campaign attitudes included a distinct pro-Israel tilt for the Middle East. Pro-Israel votes responded. Many a traditional voter for Democrats switched last year on the assumption that a Reagan administration would favor Israel more than did the Carter administration.
In Egypt Secretary Haig will bump up against an Egyptian reluctance to allow the new US rapid deployment force to use Egyptian air bases unless Washington tilts a little less in Israel's direction. In Israel he will run into protests against the new longer-range fuel tanks he is selling the Saudis. But in Jordan he will find favor for arming the Saudis with longer-range aircraft, just as he of course will in Saudi Arabia itself.
And in Saudi Arabia he will also meet squarely with a growing tendency to pull away from Washington and look more toward Western Europe for weapons and for diplomatic support. He can regain the former favored US position with the Saudis only if he can promise real US support for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories (West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem).
The idea of organizing an anti-Soviet coalition in the Middle East is a Reagan project that Mr. Haig will be expected to try to sell during his trip. But the countries there are tending to look more and more to their own devices, and to Western Europe. The Palestine issue is twined all through the politics of the area.
Meanwhile, the Reagan administration's first foreign policy venture (military aid to El Salvador) has been pushed to the back of the stove, almost out of sight. A downgrading job was done when mail running 25-to-1 against the venture hit the White House mail room. The unpopularity of the Salvador adventure was confirmed by public opinion polls.
The contrast between opening successes with budget-cutting and a series of hasty retreats in foreign policy is remarkable. It is as though the Reaganites had come to Washington with clear and widely acceptable new ideas in domestic affairs that are so popular that many Democrats approve and other Democrats dare not resist. But in foreign policy they came with attitudes left over from the past that no longer fit these times.
It is not that they have been pushed away from those attitudes by domestic political opposition. It is rather that the old attitudes are out of date.
One example is that the campaign talk of rerecognizing Taiwan has been forgotten. It has been replaced b y talk of selling modern US weapons to mainland China.