ABOUT the kindest thing anyone on Capitol Hill in Washington has had to say about the collapsed deal in guns to Iran was from Republican Senate leader Robert Dole of Kansas. It was ``well motivated,'' said the senator, ``but a little inept.'' Sen. Barry Goldwater, the patriarch and folk hero of modern Republican conservatism, called it ``a dreadful mistake, probably one of the major mistakes the United States has ever made in foreign policy.''
William Buckley, a brilliant exponent of conservative Republicanism and normal defender of Reagan policy, likened it to giving guns to Hitler in hopes of trying to influence post-Hitler German policy.
The Wall Street Journal said, ``It would be hard to conjure up anything more harmful and humiliating.''
These are voices that normally defend and support whatever the Reagan administration tries to do. In view of these it would be redundant to add comments from Democrats.
There is a consensus that the Reagan White House committed a crashing mistake in foreign policy when it entered into negotiations with people in Iran who promised release of hostages in return for weapons.
The serious question to be asked now is how it could have happened, and what should be done to prevent similar acts of folly.
In looking back over what has happened in Washington's handling of foreign affairs since World War II, one contrast seems to stand out. President Reagan's predecessors, beginning with Harry Truman, used high-level talent and experience in making their foreign policy decisions.
Truman had Dean Acheson at the State Department and largely left foreign policy in his expert hands. President Eisenhower was himself well experienced in foreign policy from his war career, but also turned for advice in such matters to a broad range of experts starting with John Foster Dulles.
John Kennedy had Dean Rusk at the State Department and McGeorge Bundy at the National Security Council. Lyndon Johnson kept Mr. Rusk on at State and substituted Walt Rostow for Mr. Bundy at the council. Then came the era of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, the latter for Jimmy Carter.
All of these people had broad experience in foreign policy and diplomacy before they became presidential advisers. All were regarded as true experts in that field. The views of all were attended. Presidents did not always act on the advice of their experts, but they never acted without hearing massive expert opinion.
President Reagan has never had on his staff at the NSC anyone with the established prestige and experience record of a Bundy, Rostow, Kissinger, or Brzezinski. At State, he has a man of high integrity in George Shultz. But Mr. Reagan has largely run his own foreign policy from the White House with slight attention to the views of the professionals at State, and frequently against the advice of Mr. Shultz. In this case Mr. Shultz was strongly opposed to the operation, so much so that in final stages he was apparently not even informed of what was going on.
Reagan started out with Richard Allen at the NSC. Allen was a former subordinate of Henry Kissinger. Mr. Kissinger got rid of Mr. Allen as soon as he could. Allen stumbled over Japanese watches and was followed by William Clark, a former political associate of the President from California, with no foreign-affairs experience. He in turn was followed by Robert C. McFarlane, an ex-marine from a Texas political family.
The post is now occupied by Adm. John M. Poindexter, who headed his class at Annapolis and did highly commended sea service, but whose last job at the Navy was running naval education and training. He had no experience in foreign policy until he entered the NSC staff in 1981.
Not one of Mr. Reagan's NSC advisors ever achieved a position of generally recognized experience and esteem in foreign policy before becoming the chief presidential adviser on foreign policy. Mr. Reagan is unique in depending in his foreign policy decisions on amateurs in foreign policy.
The moral of the story seems to be fairly obvious.
Mr. Reagan should either listen to George Shultz and the State Department experts, or get an NSC adviser who knows something about foreign policy.