Washington — Top White House aide Edwin A. Meese III contends that the United States is now ''in a better position in virtually every capital of the world than we were 10 months ago.''
His comments came in an exclusive interview with the Monitor in his White House office, in which he answered criticism that the administration's foreign policy lacks direction. Mr. Meese was also quick to affirm ''we would never do anything that would in any way engage in nuclear war at the expense of Europe'' - this in response to what he called a ''misinterpretation'' of a Reagan remark about the possibility about limiting nuclear war to a tactical exchange in Europe.
(The President himself has since issued a statement emphasizing the ongoing US commitment to defend Western Europe and asserting that ''no aggressor should believe that the use of nuclear weapons in Europe could reasonably be limited to Europe.'')
He also said the President is ''cautiously optimistic'' about winning next week's Senate vote on the sale of Airborne Warning and Command Systems (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. He confirmed the White House had drafted a letter attempting to provide assurances that some senators have requested before they would be willing to support the sale. But he emphasized that a decision to send the letter hadn't been made yet. (Recent developments, particularly Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd's opposition to the AWACS sale, now seem to indicate another shift of momentum in the AWACS battle.)
The presidential counselor also touched on a number of other foreign policy issues. Excerpts from the interview, highlighting Mr. Meese's comments on key issues, follow: Reagan foreign policy
Some of your critics are saying that the President isn't doing a very good job in shaping foreign policy and that the organizational processes involved in dealing with that policy are not running at all smoothly. What do you say to that?
Well, let me answer the second one first. You examine process to see what it results in. And that goes to your first question, too. If you look around the world you will see that we are in a better position in virtually every capital of the world than we were 10 months ago.
We have made major strides in advancing the opportunities for peace in the Middle East. We have enhanced human rights through quiet diplomacy in several places throughout the world. We have improved the unity and solidity of the NATO alliance. And we have been dealing realistically with the Soviets and have actually brought them into arms-limitation negotiations.
So by any criterion you can name the President has been successful in both the development and the implementation of foreign policy. On the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia
Is this resistance in Congress to the AWACS sale indication, as you see it, that the Congress is involving itself too much in the handling of foreign affairs - that it is, in fact, encroaching on the presidency?
I think there is a problem, or potential problem, of the Congress being involved in foreign affairs that puts them in an awkward position, as well as the President. I think a lot of this legislation that started this was enacted in a period of time in our history when there was a real concern about the powers of the President.
I think it is perhaps time to reassess whether the involvement in things like foreign-military sales doesn't put both the Congress in a bad light and hinder the President in his ability to conduct foreign policy.
But I would think that in this particular matter with the Saudis: I think that more and more senators are understanding, No. 1, how important this is to progress in the Mideast, and No. 2, that all of their concerns they have had have been overcome by the safeguards built in to the arrangements surrounding the transaction. That's why so many of them have been coming over to us from their original position.
What would be the implication of your being defeated on the AWACS sale? Would it be a blow to the presidency?
Well, I don't think it would be a personal blow to the President as much as it would be a blow to any president's ability to conduct foreign policy. But more than that it would materially injure the prospects for peace in the Mideast. That would be the greatest loss to this country, to countries in the Mideast, and, particularly, to Israel.
There is a report now that the President has written a letter, giving senators certain assurances they want before they would vote for the AWACS sale. Is this true?
Well, there is a draft of a letter that is being worked out with some members of the Senate who wanted a written expression of some of the things they had discussed with the President in some of their meetings.
What does it contain?
Basically, it reiterates assurances of the precautions that have been taken to preclude some of the adverse effects that some people have said would follow the sale of the AWACS: that it might fall into foreign hands, that the information might be used inappropriately by third countries. That kind of things.
Any indications that this letter will be persuasive with some of the senators who have been withholding their support?It's just a draft. I'm not sure whether the letter even will be sent. We haven't decided that yet.
How close are you now to winning the AWACS battle?
I think there is no question but what the momentum is moving in our direction. But this is not an appropriate time to speculate on what the outcome will be. The President says he is ''cautiously optimistic.'' On NATO and Europe
A Reagan remark has been stirring up quite a political storm in Europe. He said: ''I could see where you could have exchange of tactical weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button.'' It has been interpreted as meaning that Reagan could envision a nuclear war limited to Europe. Your comment?
I don't agree with that interpretation. It was misinterpreted. Basically, our position is that our strategy remains the same: that is, of course, to avoid nuclear war. Secondly, we would never do anything that would in any way engage in a nuclear war at the expense of Europe.
What the President was asked was: ''Do you believe that a nuclear war is winnable?'' The context of what he said was: The important thing is that we believe the Soviets may think that is possible.
And then he was further asked, and that was when he gave that quote, whether it would be possible to have tactical weapons used if there was a battle without having either one of the superpowers, the US or the Soviet Union, go to a massive intercontinental-ballistic-missile-type war. And he said it was possible that could happen.
But do you have it under control?
Yes. I think that Cap Weinberger's statements - fortunately he was at the NATO conference where he had immediate access to leaders of other countries - plus statements the President has made, clarifying and correcting misinterpretations of his remarks, all of these, from what we hear today, are calming any fears in Europe.
I would like to ask you about Walter Mondale's recent charges that the Reagan administration is following a ''go-it-alone policy'' with respect to NATO, thus sapping the economic strength and commitment to principle of the alliance, and that this administration has divided the United States from European allies by showing little interest in negotiating with the Soviet Union. Your comments?
Well, it sounds as though Mr. Mondale was totally ignorant of the facts, because every one of those statements is absolutely wrong. First of all, the latest meetings that are taking place right now by the nuclear planning group of the NATO alliance reveals a degree of unity that was unanticipated just before the meeting.
Two, we have worked very closely with our allies and in every capital in Europe our relationship has been enhanced in the last 10 months.
Third, we have indicated by our involvement and our discussions with the Soviets at the UN in September - and by the fact that we are starting the TNF (theater nuclear forces) negotiations in November - that we are interested in working realistically toward a limitation of arms. On war possibility, need for arms control
Is there a drift toward war, as Maj. Gen. Robert L. Schweitzer said there was in the speech that brought about his ouster?
We don't see any drift. As a matter of fact, we think the steps we are taking now would prevent such a drift. We think there was a drift toward that danger during that period when we were in effect allowing our relative position in defense capabilities to deteriorate. But we think the steps being taken now would prevent this miscalculation by a potential adversary. And we are, of course, working to prevent any such drift.
But how could this drift be arrested by this administration before it has its own military budget and buildup plans decided on and in effect?
For one thing, it represents the resolve of the American people to take the necessary steps for defense. Secondly, we are improving; already in the next year we are improving our overall military position in terms of conventional forces as well as starting on the strategic road. We are talking about a window of vulnerability that was supposed to take place some years hence, in the 1985 to 1989 era roughly. We will have our plans well under way by that time. Also, at the same time, we are developing our military capabilities. We are also pushing for reductions in strategic weapons on several fronts.
What are the prospects of moving toward SALT II?
We are really talking about moving toward a strategic-arms reduction program. And what we are talking about is not just a rehash of old, SALT II ideas but moving toward some new ideas on how we can reduce the totality of strategic arms on both sides.
You were taking that position during the campaign. But is there any indication - any indication at all - that the Soviet leaders are willing to discuss such reductions?
We haven't got into those discussions yet. But what we are looking at in the theater nuclear force limitation talks - negotiations that will start at the end of November - will be a tangible indication of whether the Soviets are potentially serious about going into strategic-arms limitation discussions.