Washington — Conservatives are out to change United States foreign policy. Eight years ago, leaders of the fledgling ``New Right'' demonstrated their strength by nearly defeating the Panama Canal treaties. Now they plan to gear up again -- and this time their unlikely target is the policies of the Reagan administration.
President Reagan's own credentials as a staunch anticommunist are still intact, conservatives say. But for five years the State Department has consistently undercut his policies, they charge. As a result, many conservatives are calling for the resignation of Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
In addition, several groups on the New Right are laying groundwork for a campaign to retrieve foreign-policy making from the clutches of a ``liberal foreign-policy establishment,'' which they say now runs the State Department.
Conservative dissatisfaction with some Reagan policies has existed from the beginning, leaders of the movement say. For example, they say, the administration has ``abandoned'' Taiwan in favor of the People's Republic of China.
But the catalyst for conservatives' discontent was a decision by Secretary Shultz to shuffle key personnel at the State Department at the start of Reagan's second term. Shultz's appointments of top ambassadors and policymakers, most drawn from the ranks of the career Foreign Service officers, were designed to ``purge'' conservative political appointments from the first term, conservatives charge.
After the White House ignored their complaints, Senate conservatives held up 29 Shultz appointments for several months. Led by Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, they delayed confirmation until positions could be found for six displaced conservative diplomats.
Conservative leaders say their concerns focus on the Foreign Service bureaucracy, which they charge has turned away from the President's convictions and now supports policies of ``appeasement and surrender.'' They charge the State Department with cooperating with Marxist regimes, failing to retaliate against terrorism, and pursuing policies of ``d'etente'' with the Soviets.
``These aren't the policies the American people voted for in 1980 and 1984,'' says James T. Hackett of the Heritage Foundation.
Some of the opposition to the State Department has spilled over into direct criticism of Secretary Shultz. Although conservatives stop short of saying Shultz is disloyal to the President, they claim he's fallen into the embrace of the liberal foreign-policy bureaucracy.
``Shultz considers himself to be loyal and gives speeches that reflect the President's concerns,'' says David Funderburk, former US ambassador to Romania. ``The problem is that Shultz is not a conservative supporter of Ronald Reagan, in essence. That's why he allows the Foreign Service to implement a policy that's not consistent with the President's policy.''
Mr. Funderburk is one of a group of former Reagan ambassadors who have been vocal critics of the State Department. Another, Evan G. Galbraith, was publicly chastised by Shultz in February after saying, while serving as ambassador to France, that the Foreign Service ``takes the guts out of people.''
New Right representatives say their role now is to help restore the President's authority over making foreign policy.
``The conservative job is to wrest control of foreign policy and give it back to the President,'' says Jack Wheeler, director of the California-based Freedom Research Foundation.
That means making major reforms in the Foreign Service, they say. It also means ensuring that top policy positions are filled by people who have unquestioned allegiance to the President's views.
Experts say it's unlikely that discontent with the administration's foreign policy will prove broad enough to force major changes in the Foreign Service or the resignation of Mr. Shultz. Last week the White House reaffirmed its backing for Shultz, calling him ``outstanding'' and saying he enjoys the ``full, wholehearted support'' of the President.
But conservative leaders insist that, while it's an uphill fight, the movement to change US foreign policy will gain strength over time. They say plans are in the works for an extensive media and direct-mail campaign, which they compare to earlier efforts to defeat the Panama Canal treaties during the Carter administration.
``We hope through the campaign we'll be able to reframe the whole foreign-policy debate and construct a mandate that will take US foreign policy in a new direction,'' says Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, one of 14 cosponsors of a conservative conference on the State Department held last week. Mr. Phillips says reshaping US foreign policy will be the focus for his and other groups between now and 1988.