ALEXANDER HAIG'S ``emerging'' candidacy for president could have been better timed: It was hardly noticed, almost completely overshadowed by the growing turmoil in the Reagan presidency. Indeed, the former secretary of state himself drew at least one of the many spotlights as a report surfaced that back in 1981 he had given permission for Israel to ship US-made military spare parts and fighter plane tires to Iran. The unnamed source for the story said the arms shipment was to help Israel cultivate Iranian military officials who could be valuable in any government succeeding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The report, in the Washington Post, also said that a spokesman for Mr. Haig had denied that Haig had ever approved such a shipment.
At a breakfast with reporters a few days before that report was published, Haig did indicate he had supported the ``concept'' of arms shipments to Iran to obtain diplomatic leverge with succeeding regimes - but not for linking this with an exchange for hostages.
He spoke of his ``sympathy'' for ``trying to open up lines to dissident elements in Iran.'' ``And there are dissident elements,'' he said. Then, elaborating on the subject, he added: ``There are tensions between the revolutionary guard and the military. We have known that. There are tensions between the various ethnic, tribal groups which have been historic. There are tensions now emerging from the economic situation in Iran. And there are tensions now emerging within Iran which are coming from the brutal elimination of so many young teen-agers.''
``So,'' he concluded, ``this [the arms shipments to Iran] makes good sense. When it gets distorted or perverted, when you get off the track and become a vehicle for hostage release through the trading of armaments, I think it has been disgraceful for everyone.''
Haig's move toward the presidency deserved more attention than it got. As a general with an impressive military record and as someone who has held no political office, Haig might just remind a lot of voters of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
When this possible parallel was brought to his attention, ``Call me Al'' Haig said he wouldn't be ``so presumptuous'' as to put himself in the same context of the two-term GOP President. ``But,'' he added, ``it might well be a route to the presidency in 1988: not to be a longtime politician.''
``Ike,'' the great hero of World War II, was so popular that he probably could have been elected on either ticket.
So as Haig is quick to concede, his candidacy would possess little of the star quality of Ike's.
But the man who came on as presidential chief of staff in the late stages of Watergate and carefully brokered the exit of Richard Nixon and the entry of Gerald Ford has prominently held center stage at times.
Sometimes Haig has been a controversial figure. Few will forget his assertion of command during those moments after the assassination attempt on President Reagan when Haig was secretary of state and Vice-President George Bush was en route back to the United States States. Indeed, some critics thought Haig, a former head of the NATO command, showed a little too much eagerness in seeing to it that there was no lapse, or perceived lapse from other nations, in the presidency.
Al Haig starts out by being well known among the voters. In August a Gallup poll of name recognition showed Haig and, of course, George Bush substantially above all other potential GOP candidates. Referring to it, Haig said: ``I was 70 percent - Bush was 80-some percent. The rest of the field was below 60 percent - some down into the single digits.''
Haig expresses his support for the President.
But his difference over the hostage swap is not the only one he has with Mr. Reagan. He also thinks it was ill advised on the part of the President to bring the Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'') into the negotiations with the Soviets. He thinks SDI should move ahead at full speed. But he believes that Reagan, by giving the SDI so much attention, has only stirred up opposition in Congress which may result in reduced funding and a slower pace for the project.
Apart from these differences with Reagan, the former commander of NATO forces seems quite preoccupied these days with what he calls the ``globalization of our affairs.''
``The domestic economy is no longer that,'' he says. ``It is part and parcel of a global economy. Most of the more vexing problems facing us - from drugs, from immigration, to loss of competitiveness in a number of sectors of our national base - are international problems as much as they are domestic problems.'' It seemed that we would be hearing a lot about ``globalization'' during a Haig campaign.
But Haig has not developed his campaign themes yet.
Indeed, he will wait for the first of the year before making his decision on running.
As the reporters filed out of the hotel after an hour with Mr. Haig, this seemed to be pretty much the assessment being expressed: Haig handles himself well.
He's forceful and, should his candidacy get off the ground, he would be perceived as looking like a president.
His most obvious asset is that he would not be hampered by a loyalty to the President which would prevent him from speaking out as his own man.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.