Washington — Al Haig wanted to be the ''vicar'' of American foreign policy but never quite made it. One of the reasons he didn't was that he fought so hard to control so many decisions he offended powerful White House officials, including the President himself.
Some might argue Secretary Haig had his way, until very recently at least, on most substantive issues. But if he was the chief foreign policy spokesman, he was also an embattled one. To Haig, being vicar meant having virtually total control over foreign policy.
Because he is unlikely to strive for power as intensively as Haig did, George P. Shultz may succeed in coordinating foreign policy where Haig often failed. If not the vicar, or czar, of foreign policy, Mr. Shultz is expected to gain influence over key decisions without leaving opponents feeling battered and angry.
At least this is the prediction of State Department officials as secretary of state-designate Shultz prepares for confirmation hearings this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Shultz has his critics among ultraconservatives in this city because of his ties with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissenger and his involvement in the early 1970s in the policy of detente with the Soviet Union.
But Shultz seems to have few real enemies here. He is widely liked, in part because of an unassuming personality, a personality that is more in tune with the relaxed style of the California-dominated White House than was that of the intense Alexander M. Haig Jr. Where Haig was flamboyant, Shultz can be expected to be firm but soft-spoken.
Scott Cohen, spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met Shultz when the secretary of state-designate was a professor of industrial relations at the University of Chicago. According to Mr. Cohen, Shultz ''is a strong man. But he is very prudent. He is not confrontational. He's not going to go public with policy disputes.''
''My bet is that Shultz will become the vicar, because he will have far fewer personality disputes with the White House,'' said a high-ranking State Department official, who asked not to be identified. ''Haig pushed too hard, and too early.''
''Shultz will push in his own way, but he will also bide his time,'' the official continued. ''I don't think Shultz will try to do everything at once.''
Shultz is expected to face hard questioning on only a few issues when he goes before the Foreign Relations Committee for confirmation July 13. Committee sources say his hearings are likely to take only one, or possibly two, days, in contrast with the five days it took for the controversial Alexander Haig to explain his views to the panel.
The secretary of state-designate is expected to be questioned most sharply about his Mideast views. This is mainly because of his eight-year-long association with the Bechtel Group Inc., a multibillion dollar, multinational corporation that has done major business with Saudi Arabia.
Several senators have indicated that they fear a tilt on Shultz's part toward Arab nations and away from Israel.
Another issue on which Shultz will face hard questioning is East-West trade. His past opinions appear to conflict with the Reagan view that the US can moderate the behavior of the USSR by restricting trade with the Soviets. As president of the Bechtel Group, Shultz argued in a speech before the Business Council in Hot Springs, Va., in October 1978 that US attempts to induce changes in the policies of foreign governments by turning trade off and on only resulted in undermining the US position in world markets. He called the Carter administration's attempts to use trade in this manner ''a light-switch diplomacy.''
When it comes to the Mideast, Shultz is expected to go out of his way to assert his belief in American support for the security of Israel. What is not clear at this point is whether he shares President Reagan's view that Israel is a strategic asset to the US.
But Shultz is known as a ''team player.'' He can be expected to try to reconcile his differences with a President who has long voiced sympathy for Israel, rather than sharpen them.
Joseph J. Sisco, a former undersecretary of state who knew Shultz during the Nixon White house years, says, meanwhile, that asking whether Shultz will be the vicar of foreign policy is the wrong question.
''Is he apt to have a very substantial influence on policy?'' asks Sisco, who was once Henry Kissinger's chief Mideast trouble-shooter. ''I would think yes. . . . But when it comes to Middle East policy, this has been and remains presidential policy. The emphasis is on continuity.''
''It would be a mistake to think there will be a radical change in Middle East policy,'' Sisco said.
''But it would also be a mistake to think that policy will be resting on all oars, precisely where it has been.''