THE Reagan administration's drive to privatize the business of government has gone beyond Conrail and the Postal Service to the conduct of foreign policy. Even so ardent a free marketeer as Adam Smith drew the line at lighthouses and diplomacy. Once foreign policy was run by the State Department. Then its powers were shared by other agencies, under the authority of the president and the scrutiny of Congress. Now individual National Security Council officers are free to exercise their entrepreneurial skills at raising private money to pursue policies which Congress opposes and would not fund.
At best, such actions are violations of the spirit of the Constitution and the articles of the law. But the very people whose fertile imagination is employed to utilize covert channels seem to have an unerring attraction to projects that are adventuristic, ill conceived, dangerous if they fail, and dangerous if they succeed. And when their efforts backfire, it's not some fly-by-night business that goes bust - it's the foreign policy of the United States which suffers.
How does it come about that a Lt. Col. Oliver North should play so great a role in conducting foreign policy?
Privatization of foreign policy is the reductio ad absurdum of the Reagan administration's style of government. This administration has preferred to take unilateral actions rather than to consult with allies, to force its will on Congress rather than to seek a bipartisan foreign policy.
The administration wants to impose its policies, but has not always known what policies it wants to impose. The front page of the morning newspaper has preempted the council chamber as the locus of government debate. Different departments or agencies have frequently pursued incompatible policies.
President Reagan can be stubborn. There are issues about which he cares and about which he has fixed ideas, like aid to the Nicaraguan contras and ``constructive engagement'' in South Africa. On these, he wants what he wants when he wants it. He doesn't want intelligence data or analysis that would cast doubt on his facts, and he doesn't want to be told his ideas won't work.
That's why institutions like the State Department or the Joint Chiefs of Staff or even the Central Intelligence Agency get in the way. Of course, the administration has put ``safe'' appointees, political or otherwise, into key slots. But even political appointees can learn from their staffs, and concerned professionals in the bureaucracy can drag their feet to resist unwise policies. At best, they will follow orders without much zeal.
So the President and his men turn to people who are not rooted in the foreign policy establishment, who do not share its institutional memory or professionalism, who are not trained in international affairs. On the subject of Nicaragua, the President had a policy to support the contras. That meant to fund the contras even if Congress would not. An Ollie North, charged with funding the contras, did not have to be told how to fund them. The administration could count on his patriotism, personal loyalty to the President, and ``can do'' mentality. His actions were not restrained by the skepticism or caution that comes from experience or education any more than they were restrained by the law. Working within that obscure demimonde of international arms traffickers, soldiers of fortune, and ``disinterested'' patriots, he found money for the contras and maybe others.
Back in the days when we did not have a Navy, a president could commission privateers with a letter of marque. But privateers are hardly compatible with the existence of the Sixth Fleet. Nor are the activities of Ollie North and his superiors compatible with the modern State Department.
Public affairs require measured reflection and careful actions. Public policy is not a matter for private entrepreneurship or personal romance. The conduct of foreign policy must be returned to the republic.
Steven Kramer is director of Face-to-Face at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.