Regrouping on foreign policy

DESPITE an address to the nation last week and a press conference this week, President Reagan has not ended confusion about his Iran dealings. His hostage and terrorism policies continue at odds. His foreign policy apparatus still seems minus its steering wheel, and various nuts and bolts. The issue now is how to get on with things. First some perspective: The Iran affair is not the first Reagan foreign affairs debacle. There was the tragedy of sending the marines to Beirut, against the advice of his own military. There was the grievous insensitivity of the Bitburg episode, marring what should have been an uplifting visit to Europe. Reagan's acquiescence to a fast-shuffle arms negotiation at Reykjavik, where he appeared ready to wipe all nuclear weapons from the deck in a decade, may have struck more deeply at the European allies' confidence in America's word than any apparent duplicity in the Iran affair.

Americans still have confidence in themselves, their economy, and the basic direction of their nation. After seeing three recent Presidents go into a tailspin in their closing years in office, Americans are in no hurry to see Reagan prove anything but a success.

Nonetheless, Reagan did not help himself Wednesday night. As a question-and-answer performance, the session ranks with his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, when he seemed befuddled, defensive. The Q-and-A has never been Reagan's forte. He has seldom been a great details man. His strong suit has been as a repository for certain political values - in communicating attitudes (where he is coming from), rather than explaining programs (how his policies are to be carried out).

In debate terms, he is better at the affirmative than the negative. When pressed on apparent contradictions in his case, he reasserts what he intended to do or say. This is the case even with the most glaring discrepancies. For example Wednesday night he insisted he had not OK'd Israel's shipments of arms to Iran, or any third-party shipments, which would have violated a United States embargo and US disapproval of other nations sending such arms. His remarks ran contrary to information shared by others in his administration. Surely he must have been so briefed. After this lapse, the White House hurriedly corrected his statement.

Similarly: If the arms shipped to Iran were so minor, defensive, and few, how could they be expected to make as much difference in realigning US relations with certain Iranian elements as he claimed? Inconsequential munitions could hardly deliver ``prestige and muscle.'' If Cabinet officers were as informed as he says, how could his secretary of state admit to only sporadic glimpses of the operation?

With Congress in recess, the next few weeks offer an interregnum. The Reagan presidency hasn't been spoiled. The administration should tap the considerable available talent for a fresh team, clearly allocate authority, and write a consistent foreign-affairs game plan for the President's final two years.

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