Some of the confusion in appraising the departure of Alexander Haig from the Reagan cabinet is due at least in part to the careless use of adjectives in identifying what is going on in Washington since Ronald Reagan became President of the United States.
Mr. Haig's critics were known as ''conser-vatives'' and he himself and his policies as having been more ''liberal.'' But were they?
When Mr. Haig first took up his post at the State Department he talked loudly of ''drawing the line'' against communism in Central America. He was going to do vigorous things against Senor Castro in Cuba.
Was that ''conservatism''? Certainly not. To be conservative about US policy toward Latin America would be to stay in the mainstream of that policy as it has evolved from the days of Herbert Hoover. Earlier, the US had intervened freely in Latin American affairs. Under President Hoover the idea evolved that in the long run the US would get along better with its Latin neighbors if it practiced being a ''good neighbor'' and refrained from sending US troops in whenever a Latin country did something which was unwanted either in Washington or New York.
The ''good neighbor'' policy has paid dividends. It is one reason that communism has never yet made wide gains throughout most of Latin America. Since Mr. Hoover's presidency the US has refrained from treating its southern neighbors the way the Soviet Union treats its neighbors. Soviet neighbors all wish they were free of Soviet influence. Southern neighbors of the US fear Washington less than Moscow's neighbors fear the Soviets, hence have less reason to turn to Moscow for help against US pressure on their lives.
It would be ''radical'' to abandon the good neighbor policy and go back to direct intervention whether with troops or subversion. The original Haig talk of intervention was in this sense radical. Most policies proposed by the self-styled ''conservatives'' of 1980 are in fact radical.
Take policy toward the NATO alliance. That alliance was set up 35 years ago as a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet influence into Western Europe. It has been marvelously successful. It stabilized the power frontiers in Europe. Not a single West European country has fallen to Soviet control since the alliance was formed. One European country, Yugoslavia, has worked itself out from under Moscow control. The escape was possible largely because Yugoslavia could get immediate economic and financial aid from Western Europe when it made the break.
It would be radical, not conservative, to think of ''going it alone'' and abandoning the alliance. The self-styled ''neo-conservatives'' are highly critical of the alliance and of the alliance policy. They do not actually preach abandoning the alliance, but their literature is so full of criticism of the allies that the net effect is to undermine the alliance.
Insofar as Mr. Haig actually put the alliance first he was being conservative , in the true sense of the word.
A favorite ''neo-conservative'' project is revival of economic pressure on the Soviet Union. They want maximum sanctions even at the expense of allies. They oppose the kind of dealings with the Soviet Union which occurred during the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger era under the label of ''competitive coexistence'' or ''detente.'' They seem to believe that US sanctions could in fact bring about an economic collapse in the Soviet Union and lead to a breakup of the Soviet empire.
Which is more conservative: to resist Soviet expansion by primary reliance on the NATO alliance or to engage in a policy of economic warfare against the Soviets which the allies will not support? By my definition the ''neo-conservatives'' are radicals and Mr. Haig, during his tenure at the State Department, was being a true conservative in that he was trying to conserve the policy which has worked well for some 35 years.
In American politics a party taking over in Washington from its opposition feels impelled to be different. When the Republicans came back in 1953 under Dwight D. Eisenhower after 20 Roosevelt-Truman years they were going to ''roll back the Iron Curtain'' and do all sorts of new and bold things. They sounded like radicals. In fact they practiced a careful and truly conservative foreign policy.
Reagan Republicans talked of radical breaks with the past in both domestic and foreign policy. They have been radicals in domestic economic policy. Their supporters still talk radical foreign policies. They cheered when Mr. Haig resigned, and with some rea-son. On several issues he was conservative and softened their radicalisms. But the theory that actual operating policy will be radical now that Mr. Haig has left - is to be doubted. George Shultz is just as conservative by inclination - and may be so more effectively.