Whose hand on the helm in Washington?

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It is not an earthshaking event when South Korea gets a $4 billion line of credit for economic help from Japan. And yet it tells us something about what is going on in the world. Washington has ceased to be the main place to which noncommunist countries look for help.

South Korea is in the economic doldrums, along with many others. And Japan has its own economic problems. Yet South Korea, which has unhappy memories of Japanese overlordship, has laid aside the past and turned for help to Japan, its old enemy, instead of to the United States, its official protector and benefactor.

Washington is happy about this for obvious reasons, one of which is that it reduces the workload on the US at a time when Washington itself is preoccupied with its own affairs.

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In theory Washington is still taking an active interest in events elsewhere. Vice-President George Bush is being sent off on a survey tour of the European allies. US Ambassador Philip Habib is off for another peace search in the Middle East.

But we all know that the only thing Mr. Bush can bring back from Europe is another report on how concerned the European allies are about their own economic problems (11.5 million unemployed in the countries of the European Community) and that they tend to blame this on the US.

And we all know that the solution to the problems of the Middle East lies in Washington. Mr. Habib can talk to Arabs and Israelis, but what they will do out there depends on what leverage the President in Washington will or will not use on Israel. There is no evidence that he intends to do anything but watch as Israel continues to defy him by building more dwellings for Israelis in occupied Arab territories.

The essential fact of the times is that Washington is tangled up in uncertainties and indecision over major policies, both foreign and domestic. It cannot act decisively because it does not know its own directions. The outside world can only watch and wonder how the manifold conflicts of opinion here will be resolved.

The biggest single question mark is over the American economy. President Reagan wants a combination of big guns and low taxes, which threatens to nearly double the federal debt by 1986. His economic advisers and some of the most prominent Republicans are urging upon him such measures as would lift from the scene the prospect of huge federal deficits.

Who will win out in this contest?

If the President insists on the policies, which are expected to produce mounting deficits (some think the deficit could be $300 billion in 1986), the experts doubt that real economic recovery will get under way. There may be some improvement in the short run, but it could be smothered by the load of debt.

The week brought the unexpected news that Republican Senate leader Howard Baker is thinking of leaving the Senate. He may be positioning himself to run for the presidency in 1984, if Mr. Reagan does not, or 1988, if he does.

Does that mean that Senator Baker thinks Mr. Reagan will step aside from the 1984 running? This adds another uncertainty to a lengthening list.

The European allies want above all to know whether the American economy will regain buoyancy. Can anyone tell them? If they could expect a vigorous American recovery, then they could count on help for themselves from America. If they cannot expect American recovery, then they will look toward their own devices. The result would be a tendency toward more fragmentation within the alliance, within the Western economic community, and in the European Community. The European allies also want greatly to know whether the US will bargain seriously with Moscow over new limits on nuclear weapons. But US policy on negotiations with the Soviets is tied up in a backstage struggle between those who oppose any such negotiations and those who think the time is ripe for them.

As for the American military program: Will it be virtually as big as the President wishes, no matter what damage to the economy? Or will it be seriously modified by Congress? And if modified, in what direction? No one can know.

The Reagan program puts highest priority on the weapons, which mean most to the aerospace industry - the MX missiles, the B-1 bomber, and planes for two extra super aircraft carriers. But the Army is pushing for emphasis to be switched over to conventional weapons. The NATO command in Europe believes that with a little extra effort NATO could be adequately defended with conventional weapons.

Such a change in emphasis would be most welcome in Europe, where it would be seen as a practical way to reduce the danger of nuclear weapons being used in Europe.

Uncertainties about policy directions in Washington are greater than a year ago. At the beginning of 1982, President Reagan was still able to set most policy directions. He can no longer do so. There is far greater doubt about his ''supply-side'' economics, about his attitude toward the Soviets, and about his military program.

The rise in doubt about the President's ideas has meant rising opposition. Hence, to know what the President wants is no longer to know what the policy will be six months or a year from now. Congress is a weightier factor in policymaking.

President Reagan issued an order this week to stop all information ''leaks'' in the administration. The leaks themselves arise out of the many and hard-fought differences over policy direction. They probably cannot be suppressed. The differences are too strong. Those who disagree with the President, whether in Congress or from inside the White House itself, are going to push their views by any possible method, including the ''leak.''

Another way of saying the above is that, for the moment at least, President Reagan is no longer able to dominate policymaking either in economic or military or foreign policy. He is still standing on the bridge, and he can sometimes forestall policies that run counter to his inclinations.

But no foreign government can be sure today about the direction of US policy. They can only watch and wonder what will emerge from the battles over policy that now dominate the Washington scene.

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