Reagan upgrades foreign policy

The decision at the White House to bring William Clark over from the State Department where he has been learning about foreign policy to the White House to coordinate the flow of material on foreign policy to the President seems to me to be both timely and promising.

It is timely because a year of experience has proved that world events declined to stand still while President Reagan was concentrating on the domestic American economy.

That first Reagan year saw US-Israeli relations degenerate into an unattractive, and avoidable, public row. This could not have happened had the White House itself been adequately informed about the Middle East and been working daily at moving the relations of Arabs and Israelis toward accommodation. Neglect of the subject allowed a crevasse of misunderstanding to open up between Washington and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Hard work will be required to repair the damage.

The same first year saw Washington just watch while one of the great human dramas of the century was played out to its tragic denouement in Poland. Could Washington have done anything to head off the military takeover in Poland? Probably not much. The Solidarity movement followed the path already trod by the reformers of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. They got carried away by early success. They ignored storm warnings. Lech Walesa had lost control of Solidarity before the end.

Conceivably Washington might have influenced the outcome a little by sending quiet words of warning, by making clear the basic fact that there was literally nothing Washington could do to help if matters got out of hand. At least the workers of Poland might have been a little more cautious and restrained. At least they could not then feel that they had been let down by Washington.

But nothing useful was done. There were only rhetorical ''warnings'' to Moscow of unspecified reprisals should Moscow send its own troops into Poland. Since Moscow wanted to resolve the Polish ''problem'' without using its own troops, if possible, the warnings were wasted. The playing of the American hand throughout the Polish story must go down in the annals of diplomacy as an example of irrelevance and naivete.

Add that during the first Reagan year relations with China sagged into an also avoidable tangle over what kind of guns and airplanes the United States will continue to supply to Taiwan.

Reasonably good relations between Washington and Peking make the difference between a balanced and an unbalanced power world. Those relations had been improving steadily from President Nixon's first trip to Peking. Moscow became noticeably more cautious from that moment. Those relations were allowed to degenerate during the past Reagan year. Peking is itself now edging away from Washington. If Mr. Reagan is not careful he can lose a strategic asset as important in Asia as the NATO alliance is for Europe.

These three examples of world problems which grew worse during 1981 undermine the importance of making a change in the White House arrangements for handling foreign affairs. Richard Allen was in charge of that department at the White House during the first year. He has been cleared of any legal impropriety over Japanese watches and envelopes containing cash. But he was unable to convey to the President the seriousness of those three problems.

Events proved not that Mr. Allen did anything wrong but that for reasons perhaps of nothing more than personality differences he was ineffective. He did not, for one thing, have direct access to the President.

William Clark came from the California Supreme Court to the State Department a year ago in a state of original innocence about foreign policy. His confirmation hearings proved that he had never taken a cram course in the subject. But he is a trusted personal friend of the President. He was sent to the State Department by the President. He has used his year there to learn. The professionals at that institution respect him for his ability to listen and learn. He goes to the White House with their approval.

The change means that a man who has spent a year in learning foreign policy at the State Department, and getting some knocks in the process (particularly over the Irish question), moves over to the White House where he will have direct access to the President. It means, or should mean, that he will be able to get the information the President needs for sound foreign policy to the President.

For the above reasons the move of Mr. Clark from State to White House is both timely and promising.

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