Once again the Reagan policy process for foreign affairs is in flux. Judge Clark, the National Security Council assistant, seems to be superceding Secretary Shultz as chief adviser on much of foreign policy. On Central America, on arms control, and on the Middle East, Clark appears to be taking charge.
The occupants and authority of these posts have already changed several times since the administration took office. The first NSC assistant, Richard Allen, was replaced by Judge Clark after a year. Six months later, Haig was dropped and Shultz appointed as secretary of state. That promised a stable system with Shultz having clear primacy on substantive policy and Clark serving as the manager of the policy process.
The current shift mirrors some of the tensions inherent in the Reagan administration and its foreign policy. Several factors are involved.
1. Secretary Shultz has been slow to take charge or assert leadership in important areas. Level-headed, practical, and intelligent, he is also extremely cautious and is more of a mediator or negotiator than a policy strategist. His experience in international affairs has been in mainly economic relations and not in political-military or East-West issues. Initially much of his attention had to be devoted to patching up earlier mistakes like the pipeline fiasco and relations with allies. His first major initiative, the Reagan proposals on the Palestine problem, which were constructive and courageous, were not pursued energetically, and were derailed by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
2. Those for whom issues are simple and clear-cut are bound to see the State Department as negative or unresponsive when it seeks to take account of their complexity. And indeed the department tends to be routine and not fully effective unless it has strong and decisive leadership at the top.
3. Despite his lack of experience and background, Judge Clark has become much more self-confident and assertive. As a longtime associate, he enjoys the trust and confidence of the President with closer ties and easier access than anyone else. His view of the world is similarly simplistic and dominated by a hard-line conception of the Soviet Union as the main source of America's international problems. Thus he understands the President's own reactions to issues and events , and his outlook is compatible with that of many other top officials in defense and elsewhere.
4. Finally with an election approaching the President's political advisers like Mr. Baker are eager for some successes in the foreign field. The record thus far is sparse, especially with the Middle East stalemate. Smoother relations with allies or coping with third-world debts are not the stuff of stirring campaign oratory.
The implications of Clark's predominance are deeply disturbing at home and abroad. Given Mr. Reagan's own proclivities, the only hope for coherent and balanced foreign policy depends on his being exposed to competing diagnoses and analyses which will qualify the ramifications and consequences of various forces. To some degree that has happened. His positions on Taiwan-China, trade with the USSR, and starting arms control negotiations have been moderated by the impact of events and pressures from Congress and the allies.
The ascendancy of Judge Clark will hardly foster this process. His outlook will tend to reinforce the President's inclination to simplify issues and to approach them in East-West and military terms. His talk with Steven Weisman of the New York Times starkly displayed his limitations. ''I've never felt inhibited by a lack of background (in foreign affairs) because I feel the process is really no different here from what it was on the court.'' It is just a matter of finding the truth. ''And once you feel confident that you have the truth on a set of facts, it's not difficult to make a recommendation.''
The analogy would hardly be less apt. Making foreign policy has little in common with deciding a law suit. It is an effort to influence an uncertain future. Doing so involves anticipating the actions and reactions of other nations, assessing alternative courses, and weighing risks and consequences. Judge Clark has neither the background nor the experience for that task. An NSC staff, though useful, is no substitute for an adequate policy process exposing and integrating the various considerations. In the present administration the policy biases of many officials need the counterweight of a strong secretary of state and Department of State. Congress can influence policy and apply brakes in some cases, as it has in using the MX as a lever for arms control, but it cannot be a substitute either.
Shultz could probably redress the present shift if he used his substantial leverage. The President needs his reputation for good sense, moderation, and integrity to maintain the support of Congress, the public, and allies, and cannot afford the serious costs of his departure. Shultz should insist that the secretary of state be the President's principal spokesman and adviser. And the secretary should also provide the stronger policy leadership that implies. To do so in areas where he feels ill equipped he should bring into the top of the department qualified individuals to assist him. For arms control, for example, he might well arrange for an ambassador-at-large (like Paul Nitze) to carry the ball for him.
By such a course, Secretary Shultz would put both the country and the President deeply in his debt.