Getting through the crisis

FOR President Reagan, the quickest way through the deepening Iran affair is to support the process that already exists for confronting serious breaches of official conduct and policy. That process includes:

The appointment of a special prosecutor. Attorney General Edwin Meese's quick assessment of what went amiss - which revealed a diversion of Iranian payments for arms to the Nicaragua contras - might do as a first step for administrative purposes. But a half dozen important US laws may have been broken, for which Reagan officials may be accountable.

The attorney general gave a bravura performance Tuesday in responding to questions about discoveries to date. But he clearly thinks that for the White House team, loyalty to the President should come first. That may be true, politically speaking. But the attorney general first represents the law, not an officeholder or administration. This widening affair could pull in others in the President's Cabinet; the White House staff; the vice- president, who is in charge of National Security Council matters; and the President himself, in terms of knowledge or authorization of events. Appointment of a special prosecutor would ensure the requisite impartiality of the inquiry.

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Full cooperation with congressional inquiries. To avoid a protracted confrontation with Capitol Hill, the administration should decide at the outset to cooperate fully with the hearings and reviews that will preoccupy the 100th Congress when it convenes in a few weeks. There may be some rough moments. Still, in prior congressional reviews of administration performance, lawmakers ultimately rose to the occasion in fairness and responsibility.

Thorough review of foreign policy decisionmaking and immediate clear allocation of authority. The announced blue-ribbon panel review of NSC activities can be useful. But the management crisis is immediate. If White House accounts are to be believed, neither the President nor his top people knew in detail what was going on. Any conclusion - that they knew or did not know, or some degree of both - is painful to contemplate.

Until someone is clearly in charge, other governments cannot with confidence deal with this administration. For the moment at least, George Shultz must step to the fore. It is argued by some that Mr. Shultz owed it to the President to have forced a showdown on the Iran arms-for-hostages issue long ago. Would his resignation have only permitted the NSC to run further amok? This dilemma is but one further piece of evidence of how this affair may have tainted the careers of dedicated public servants.

Sensible policy cannot be made while a scandal like this still runs at full tilt.

Crisis reveals character. Mr. Reagan's tolerance of internal feuding, his casualness with detail, his reliance on public promotion rather than consensus-building - the negative potential of all these, which a professional staff is supposed to offset, has been illustrated.

Through candor and cooperation, he can put the crisis behind him. Meanwhile, he must assemble a White House and foreign-policy operation worthy of bipartisan support, the confidence of allies, and the interests of the great nation he leads.

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