It fascinates us that, with the fortunes of his administration at such low ebb, President Carter is still able to act with considerable political elan. The swift appointment of Edmund Muskie as secretary of state is a quadruply shrewd move. It is bound to help bolster Mr. Carter's frayed influence in the Congress. It promises to enhance the State Department's rightful role as dominant spokesman for US foreign policy. It will help allay concerns, at home and among allies abroad, that the United States is opting for an unduly militant course in world affairs. And, not least of all, it should give Mr. Carter some political dividends among liberal Democratic voters, especially in such Northeastern states as Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts.
Not bad. Whatever else critics might say, the President is an able political strategist.
Politics aside, however, we applaud the appointment. Whether Mr. Muskie has enough diplomatic skill to cut through some of the burning problems confronting the nation remains to be seen. He has a broad familiarity with foreign policy (having been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) but his experience in this arena is limited. His much-publicized short temper could also be a liability. Yet there is no denying his political stature and such qualities as strong independence of mind which could prove valuable assests.
Two things seem to be needed in the diplomatic field now. One is to erase the damaging impression of disunity and disarray within the US foreign policy establishment. The other is to convey to the world -- to friends and foes alike -- that the United States has a consistent, steady foreign policy based on the peaceful pursuit of objectives and backed up by sufficient military strength. Mr. Muskie already gives indication he understands the task. On the first score , he says he has been assured by the President that the, not national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, will be the foreign policy spokesman. Given his political power on Capitol Hill, there is little doubt he will assert himself and take charge.
This is not a matter of slugging it out with the head of the National Security Council. There is probably more basic unanimity of view than often seems apparent. But it is a matter of keeping arguments and resolving differences behind the scenes and then making sure the US speaks with a single voice and conveys an image of unity.
On the second point, Mr. Muskie has supported the President's broad foreign policies and will no doubt continue them. But in recent weeks and days there has arisen an apprehension that the US is adopting a more confrontational approach, specifically in Iran, which could perhaps lead the country into a military conflict. We believe that the fears are mistaken, that Mr. Carter, despite the quasimilitary hostage-rescue attempt, wants to avoid the use of force. Yet continuing public comments from his aides about "not abandoning the military option" seem to feed such alarmism. It is ironic that even such inveterate "hawks" as Senator Henry Jackson express concern about unpredictable US policy and possible precipitate actions.
MR. Muskie has spoken out in the past against hasty interventionism abroad and he will need now to damp down any war talk. He has already stated, with respect to the Iranian crisis, that the US will go on to seek a solution by peaceful means. That is the right course and focus. The new secretary of state has a lot of learning to do on the nuts and bolts of issues, and it may take time to grab hold of the State Department bureaucracy But he seems to understand what America's foreign policy thrust should be. The nation can be pleased with President Carter's choice.