President Carter appears to have committed another serious error of judgment in his handling of the sensitive case of the Shah of Iran. The deposed Iranian leader's departure from Panama and arrival in Egypt for what may be permanent residence are likely to complicate efforts to end the hostage deadlock. In Iranian eyes, the United States still refuses to do what is thought to be the minimum for a solution of the crisis -- namely, making a firm break with the Shah and the past oppressive policies he represented. The White House, unfortunately, seems again to have failed to perceive the detrimental impact of its continuing links with the Shah, and the suspicions these arouse with Iranians who look back to the time when the US first restored the Shah to his throne.
Many in the West may see behind the President's policy a genuine humanitarian concern about the fate and survival of a former ally. But there are times when a sense of personal responsibility must be subordinated to the higher national interest. In this case that is the interest of the lives of 50 hostages and the establishment of a new relationship between Iran and the United States. It does not strike us as sensible that, at a time when the Shah is the cause of conflict with Tehran, the White House should have sent one of its own high-level emissaries, Hamilton Jordan, to Panama to begin with. That perpetuated an official, overt connection, an act bound to be viewed as defiant of Iran's concerns. Surely, if talks were necessary with the Shah over the matter of his medical treatment, a nongovernmental, private mission could have been arranged.
We also do not see that Zbigniew Brzezinski's gratuitous public pronouncements have helped the situation. Quite the contrary. The national security adviser's suggestion that the Shah could have come to the US if he had chosen served only to show again how insensitive the US appears to be to Iranian feelings. It was, moreover, mere window dressing. The fact is, there was no desire in Washington that the US again play host to the former ruler. From all one can piece together, the hope was that the Shah would remain in Panama and that Iran's efforts to extradite him would help unravel the hostage predicament.
That, at least, was the view within the State Department. But it is clear that foreign policy is being made more and more within the National Security Council, a development that is adding to the confusion and disunity apparent in the conduct of US foreign policy. The President has already undercut the authority of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance by his repudiation of a US vote in the United Nations. He now is further weakening his secretary's ability to function by continuing to let Mr. Brzezinski speak out -- often in a manner at variance with State Department advice. Having many voices, the US is coming to have none. It is a serious question whether American diplomacy will ever be put on the steady, consistent course everyone is pleading for until President Carter decides where the repository of foreign policy lies and who is to be his secretary of state.
The latest development complicates not only the hostage issue. It has a direct bearing on efforts to achieve further progress toward a Middle East settlement.
In one sense President Sadat, by his humane and courageous offer of asylum to the Shah, has won extra leverage with the United States, which is now further in Egypt's debt. But the Egyptian leader also takes on an extra burden. He already is ostracized in the Arab and Muslim world because of his peace treaty with Israel. The presence of the Shah would seem to damage even more his chances of bringing the Arabs and Palestinians into the West Bank negotiations.
In this situation Prime Minister Begin appears to have increasingly less incentive to moderate Israel's defiance of world opinion, a defiance which escalated still another notch with the provocative decision this week to establish two Jewish schools in the occupied Arab city of Hebron, a center of Palestinian nationalism.
What ought to be done by Washington now on the whole gamut of Middle East problems is not easy to know. Certainly the US should be consulting with its European allies on the next course of action, if any. There have been too many diplomatic mistakes of late, and this suggests the need of a calm, basic presidential reassessment of where the US has gone wrong. This might unlock some ideas about where to go right.