Washington — Hundreds of professional American diplomats shared in Philip Habib's moment of glory as he received the Medal of Freedom from President Reagan this week.
As a good number of State Department professionals saw it, for all his new-found prominence, Mr. Habib, a lifelong promoter of the career Foreign Service, was still one of them. Through his Lebanon diplomacy, he had struck a blow in their favor.
The State Department and its more than 3,000 Foreign Service officers have been suffering for years from chronic morale, image, and budgetary problems. Not the least of State's problems has been a steady erosion of power which started in the post-World War II years and has now left the department much weaker than it once was in relationship to White House special assistants and other Washington bureaucrats.
As one career officer, Robert Pringle, put it nearly five years ago in an article in Foreign Policy magazine, ''The State Department has never had it easy , for reasons well known. These include chronic bad relations with Congress, the traumatic scars left by the McCarthy era, which bred a tradition of timidity, and a host of image problems created by the striped-pants diplomatic cliche.
''State has produced its share of martyrs - John Stewart Service and the others who told it like it was about China and were crucified for their pains - but very few popular heroes.''
State may have found its hero in Phil Habib.
Blunt, bespectacled, and balding, Habib is almost the opposite of the stereotyped image many people have of the elegant career diplomat. A Foreign Service officer for more than 30 years, former ambassador, troubleshooter, and adviser to three secretaries of state, Habib combines the tough, streetwise, no-nonsense approach of his native Brooklyn with an appreciation for diplomatic nuance. Last year, Habib was called away from retirement in California to deal with the Reagan administration's first foreign policy crisis, in Lebanon.
Under the most difficult of circumstances, Habib arranged a Lebanon ceasefire in 1981, and then went on most recently to conduct arduous negotiations leading to the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Syrian forces from Beirut. President Reagan is now thinking of sending Habib back to Lebanon to work toward the withdrawal of the remaining foreign forces.
''I think it's good for morale at the State Department,'' said Charles S. Whitehouse, a former ambassador and longtime friend of Habib's who served until recently as President of the American Foreign Service Association. ''It's like having a fellow on your team become a star.''
''It's good for the Foreign Service to have a fellow like Habib on television , even when all he's doing is walking by and saying 'no comment.' ''
Part of Habib's success has been due to his ability to keep his talks with foreign leaders private. Reporters who have dealt with Habib know only too well how difficult it is to get past Habib's jokes, tough rejoinders, and brusque ''no comment'' to the substance of his maneuvering. But young Foreign Service officers say that behind the tough exterior is a man who has always been accessible to them, fighting for their rights and morale.
''His work with younger officers has not been done in a condescending way,'' said one such officer. ''It's been done in the interest of trying to keep alive traditions of excellence in the service - not exactly the most popular theme of the 1960s and '70s.''
According to one professional diplomat, Habib has on at least one occasion discussed with President Reagan the problems of the Foreign Service and his view that the White House should think twice before approving proposals for the appointment of ''Reaganites'' instead of career officers, to a number of top and middle-level positions at the State Department.
Many conservatives were dismayed by former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr.'s decision to keep career officers in many key positions at the State Department, and those same conservatives are equally unhappy with Secretary of State George Shultz's apparent reliance on some of those same professionals.
According to one insider, Secretary Haig at one point fought a bitter battle with deputy White House Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver over the choice for a replacement for Elliott Abrams as assistant secretary of state to head State's Bureau of International Organization. In the end Mr. Deaver won that battle and saw his man get the appointment.
Under White House pressure Haig was reported further to have agreed to the appointment of a number of ''Reaganites'' as deputy assistant secretaries. But the battle over some of those positions is apparently not yet over.
After receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Reagan at a White House ceremony Sept. 7, Philip Habib made a brief statement. He singled out for praise a career Foreign Service officer who has worked as his right hand man in Lebanon and as a deputy assistant secretary of state. He is Morris Draper, an unflappable, white-haired professional known at the department as ''Mr. Lebanon'' because of the many long hours which he has spent over the past decade working at the often thankless task of dealing with endless crises in Lebanon.
''Whatever we accomplished, we accomplished as team members,'' said Phil Habib as he stood near the President and spoke of Lebanon under the sparkling chandeliers of the White House East Room.