GEORGE Shultz is one of those all-too-rare persons in high places in Washington to whom one naturally and reflexively ascribes the qualities of integrity and character. He has proved both qualities over and over again. He is needed in Washington. George Shultz also has a short temper. Twice in recent times he has exploded, publicly. The last time was over the Reagan administration plan to apply the ``lie detector'' test to anyone in government handling confidential material. The previous time was in Belgrade during his Eastern European trip, when the subject came up of the safe passage which the Yugoslav government had allowed to the Arab who had masterminded the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
Reports from the plane that brought Mr. Shultz back from Belgrade agree that on that subject he banged the table and went red in the face, so great was his anger.
In the lie-detector matter he went before the State Department press corps at a public press conference and stated, not quite with clenched teeth (an impossibility), but with every evidence of deliberate and strong-felt defiance, that if required to take a lie-detector test he would resign.
The outburst over the lie-detector test was effective. The President talked with him and announced that neither he himself nor Mr. Shultz would ever be asked to take the test. Both of them have daily access to classified information. If they are not expected to take it, and particularly if Mr. Shultz would not be asked to take it, then anyone else is entitled to cite them as an example.
The test is routine in such places as the CIA and undoubtedly will continue to be used there in spite of considerable doubt about the accuracy of the device used in such tests. But its general use through the ranks of government officials can hardly be pushed after the exceptions which Mr. Reagan granted himself and Mr. Shultz.
The outburst against the Yugoslavs over the single Arab was not effective. There is a wide difference of opinion between Mr. Shultz and most governments bordering on the Mediterranean over that and related matters. The particular Arab, Muhammad Abdul Abbas, who enjoyed safe travel in and out of Yugoslavia, had been taken from American hands in Italy by the Italian authorities on order of the Italian prime minister and sent safely on his way.
Yugoslavia did no differently in this case than Italy, which is one of America's closest and most loyal allies. The outburst against the Yugoslavs was both undiplomatic and useless. It did expose a myopia in Mr. Shultz's mind on the subject of ``terrorism.'' He is outraged when an act of violence is committed by PLO or other Arabs during the course of their war with Israel. But he shows no comparable sense of outrage or even public disapproval when Israel or South Africa commits acts of violence which h ave frequently killed innocent bystanders as well as enemies.
There is police killing of blacks in South Africa almost daily. Within the month, South Africa sent a patrol into the independent black monarchy of Lesotho and killed a party of blacks who were allegedly members of the African National Congress. On Oct. 1 Israel sent its bombers to attack the PLO headquarters in Tunisia, killing 67 persons of whom 22 were identified as bystanding Tunisians. Eight were Tunisian policemen.
The lie-detector episode came after the departure from the White House of Robert C. McFarlane. Mr. Shultz had a comfortable relationship with Mr. McFarlane. We know that one reason for Mr. McFarlane's departure was the sense of pressure which has built up around foreign policymaking at the White House.
Mr. Shultz is much too intelligent a person to have made his act of public defiance of the administration on the matter of the lie-detector test in ignorance of its possible consequences. He is under attack from the neoconservative community, which opposed the meeting with the Soviets in Geneva and continues to oppose the whole broad Shultz policy of seeking easier relations with the Soviets.
What we see here in these two Shultz outbursts is the external result of the pressure under which Mr. Shultz is trying to keep American foreign policy on an even keel. Obviously, there is doubt about how much longer he can take it.