Washington — Presidents sometimes send out messages that are clear to the recipients but are confusing to the public. Such was the warning that Mr. Reagan sent to Prime Minister Begin which was meant to say that the President was losing patience with Israel's military actions in Lebanon.
The public confusion resulted from the sharp words being uttered by Reagan associates on one day only to be followed by a softening of the criticism by the President himself on the next day. Many people got the impression Mr. Reagan was pulling back.
It is useful to go over the ground of what was said on those two days to see what really happened.
On July 22 Deputy Secretary of State William P. Clark, meeting with reporters over breakfast, was clearly, as they say, "carrying something in his pocket." He has long been a close friend and adviser of Mr. Reagan, and thus his media audience had little doubt that the President had briefed Mr. Clark before his arrival. Indeed the State Department official encouraged the impression he was carrying the President's message: in essence, that Mr. Reagan was getting fed up with the leader of Israel.
"Begin without question is making it difficult to assist Israel," Mr. Clark said of the Israeli raids on Lebanon which were killing so many innocent people and of Mr. Begin's slowness to move to a cease-fire.
Mr. Clark said the President's responsibilities and commitments to Israel "are not to Begin, but to the nation he represents." He said that "Begin is not our only friend in the region," adding that the President has "broad, regional" responsibilities throughout the Mideast.
Mr. Clark spoke more than once of Mr. Reagan's frustration and embarrassment over Mr. Begin's deportment. And he hinted, though guardedly, that the President might decide to make a major turnabout and cut off F-16 jet fighters and other arms aid to Israel permanently.
At almost the same time Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on television was accusing Mr. Begin of much the same: of overkill in his raids into Lebanon and of twice undermining US efforts to negotiate the removal of syrian antiaircraft missiles from Lebanon.
But by the next day the President was beginning to moderate his surrogates' words. First, presidential chief of staff James Baker III, meeting with this same breakfast group, carried this Reagan message: "To the extent they were making value judgments with respect to Begin, Secretaries Weinberger and Clark were speaking for themselves. In comments regarding restraint and moderation by all parties concerned in the Middle East, they were speaking for the administration."
But to repeated questions from reporters Mr. Baker declined to say that this was in any way a presidential repudiation or rebuke of either Secretary Weinberger or Mr. Clark. Instead, Mr. Baker left the distinct impression that the President was letting stand the Weinberger-Clark warning to Begin of the day before while merely adding his own softening, balancing words.
Mr. Baker went out of his way to stress the President's long-time and abiding commitment to Israel. Later in the day Mr. Reagan himself underscored this commitment.
No, the President wasn't pulling back. As sources in the White House put it, Mr. Reagan was merely making certain that no one -- particularly those in the US Jewish community -- would interpret criticism of Mr. Begin as in any way diminishing Mr. Reagan's abiding friendship with Israel.
The President was already hearing that Israel was heeding the warning. Mr. Begin had indicated through diplomatic channels that he was looking more favorably on accepting a cease-fire.
With this encouraging news in the background Mr. Reagan was rounding out the Clark-Weinberger criticism. As the White House sources went on to say, the President had made his point with Mr. Begin and now was making another point with those who supported Israel and might need reassu rances.