William D. Hassett, who served in the White House during World War II, refers in his diary to the ''Ickes problem.'' He records that one of the problems in gearing the country to war after Pearl Harbor was to ''make Honest Harold Ickes cease sniping at fellow cabinet members, in itself a full day's work.''
There is nothing new about feuding among members of the cabinet either in Washington or in any other important world capital. Some Presidents have not only allowed it but even encouraged it as a means of testing out different policies. It is most usual when important policy differences exist within the higher levels of government and have not been resolved.
President Reagan has a problem with Secretary of State Alexander Haig which is partly personal, but which in the larger sense arises out of the fact that President Reagan still assigns a low priority to foreign affairs and has not yet evolved what any foreign affairs professional would regard as a coherent body of operating foreign policy.
The Reagan administration has foreign affairs attitudes. It regards the Soviet Union as the adversary. It believes that the United States should and can contain Soviet expansion by increasing the military strength of the US. It is reluctant to enter into negotiations with the Kremlin until it has first achieved more military strength. But this is a set of attitudes and assumptions. It is not an operating policy. Mr. Haig at the State Department is doing what he can in a situation where there are no clear guidelines from the White House.
This condition is exacerbated by Mr. Haig's own sensitivities and pride. He was trained as a soldier to execute specific policies laid out by his superiors. He is not a politician who learns to operate where and how one can in a muddle of conflicting interests and purposes. He has not fitted well into the Reagan situation. Washington buzzed last week of talk of his impending dismissal. Names of possible successors were being handed around.
But would it be a good idea to get a new secretary of state in Washington now?
That depends on what is wanted.
Mr. Haig is not an ideologue. He does not share the mind-sets of most of the original Reagan team who came to Washington from right-wing Republican backgrounds. He is a professional soldier. He has served in Europe as Supreme Allied Commander. He believes in the importance of the NATO alliance. He knows the kind of policies which should be pursued if the NATO alliance is to be kept alive. He is in fact the nearest thing there is in high-level Washington to a spokesman for the alliance.
Also, he has been part of the process of building US foreign policy over the past decade. He came to Washington under Henry Kissinger at the beginning of the Nixon administration. He understands the importance of the opening to China. He knows that Taiwan, no matter how virtuously anti-communist, is a midget in the power balance. He knows that China can make the difference between a world balanced for or against the enormous weight of the Soviet Union.
He could be replaced without damage to the American position in the world if he were replaced by someone of equal experience and a similar set of attitudes toward the world. The most important requirement would be the ability to think pragmatically and objectively, not ideologically. In theory there are men with tougher hides who could do the job as well as or better than Mr. Haig and avoid the sort of unseemly personal tempest which rocked Washington last week.
But any change could be disturbing. A Reaganite who believes in arming Taiwan against the People's Republic of China would push China back into the arms of Moscow. A Reaganite who regards Israel as America's only reliable friend in the Middle East could drive the Arabs to Moscow. A Reaganite who believes in cutting adrift from Western Europe could be the end of the NATO alliance - and a huge gain for Moscow. There are plenty of people in the Reagan camp who express those points of view.
And what would be the point of making a change to someone of similar views and competence to Mr. Haig unless or until the President himself is ready to turn his main attention from domestic to foreign affairs?
The President has domestic economic policies. They may or may not work. But they have top priority. Foreign affairs are still in a holding pattern. Mr. Haig is as good as anyone I can think of offhand to keep them in a relatively safe holding pattern until the White House is ready to give them serious and high priority.
Obviously, that time has not yet arrived.