This week, while the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev was wooing India, and Philippine President Corazon Aquino was rebuilding her Cabinet on sounder foundations, President Reagan was struggling through the deepest crisis of his administration. Were the United States a parliamentary democracy (which it is not), there would be a motion of no confidence in the parliament and a bitter debate, possibly leading to a resignation of the Cabinet.
No such thing can happen in Washington under the US Constitution. Ronald Reagan will continue to be President for the next two years (short of an unlikely resignation and a handover of power to Vice-President George Bush). But what amounts to a no-confidence debate exists informally and has already led to a shift in the distribution of power inside the government.
At this writing, it is not certain that George Shultz will continue as secretary of state. If he does remain, it will be with enlarged control over, and responsibility for, foreign policy.
Two lesser heads have already rolled: Vice-Adm. John Poindexter, the President's national security adviser, and Lt. Col. Oliver North, a Poindexter subordinate, who had been in charge of assuring funds for Nicaragua's rebels, known as contras. The policy Colonel North was operating - the finding of funds and guns for the rebels - may well be slipping away with him.
The crisis arose out of the discovery and disclosure that some of the funds that have been keeping the contras in action against Nicaragua came from a profit made on selling US guns to Iran through Israel. This all occurred at a time when an act of Congress had forbidden the use of US funds for guns for the contras.
The President found himself having to state, formally, from the White House, on national television, that the action of his subordinates in this matter ``raises serious questions of propriety.''
Was it actually illegal? It became a device for evading the law.
The President also found himself embarrassed by the disclosure that his repeated denials on the previous Wednesday (Nov. 19) of any condoned or authorized third-country involvement in the affair were incorrect. He had already been informed that Israel was selling US guns to Iran.
The disclosure of the Israeli involvement was made in a brief appearance by the President himself on television, followed by a lengthy press conference with Attorney General Edwin Meese. The President has been visibly distressed by the disclosure of a complex web of questionable deeds within his White House staff. It is to be noted that the President took no questions. Mr. Meese did. In effect, Meese took over management of the crisis from the President and disclosed in the process that the President had been informed of the Israeli connection.
At this writing, we are waiting to see what role he and James Baker, the former White House chief of staff who is now the secretary of treasury, will be playing in the remodeled White House arrangements. There were no such problems of fractionalism of government and disclosed ``questions of propriety'' when Meese and Mr. Baker were at the White House during the first four Reagan years.
As of this week, it would probably be correct to say that Meese and Baker are the two most influential people in the White House. Will they return from Justice and Treasury to help salvage what can be saved of the Reagan presidency from this affair?
It still seems possible that Donald Regan will be relieved of his job as White House chief of staff. He is certainly guilty of allowing his President to make important statements of fact in public which had to be corrected within half an hour. Also, either he was ignorant of the Iran-Israel-contra deal, which would mean he was not doing his job, or he knew about it and allowed it to go forward, in which case he committed a blunder that has damaged the President.
A platoon of Justice Department lawyers was busy all week asking questions. The full story is still to be uncovered and pieced together. Congress will certainly want its own investigations in order to make sure that the Justice Department investigators are as interested in getting all the facts as in protecting the White House.
It is possible that this marks the beginning of a two-year phase in US government during which Reagan will be substantially in the role of a constitutional king who reigns but does not rule. Actual power will probably be exercised by an inner Cabinet group.
A good guess would be that Meese and Baker would be at the core of the group.