Policy, politics, principles

We would like to amplify on our commentary about the upheaval in the US State Department. Much is being made now of the tension between State and the National Security Council and the sometimes deleterious impact of this tension on the conduct of American foreign policy. This could not be exaggerated. Without underestimating the difficulties which arose between former Sec retary of State Cyrus Vance and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the fact remains that it is the President of the United States who is responsible for the conduct of a prudent, coherent, stable foreign policy and the articulation of it. It is at his door that the real blame for any lapses must lie.

In his regard President Carter must take his lumps.

The problem, as we see it, is twofold. One is the fact that foreign policy has increasingly become hostage to domestic political considerations. Perhaps another argument for reforming the present long, and lengthening, primary system fof picking presidents is that it distorts the diplomatic decisionmaking process. Every decision tends to be seen, if not totally at least partially, in terms of its perceived impact on domestic public opinion and its results at the polls. To tell an incumbent president not to weigh the political factor would be unrealistic. Yet, in Mr. Carter's case, the politicization of foreign policy has reached disquieting -- some would say alarming -- proportions.

You don't have to look far for examples. The decision to retract the US vote in the United Nations on Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank was clearly a surrender to domestic political pressures. The contrived flap over the Soviet brigade of troops in Cuba and the initial US insistence that the status quo was "not acceptable" patently was expected to help defuse political charges that the administration was soft on the Russians. The paramilitary effort to rescue the hostages in Iran and heightened talk about military operations can be linked to the rising public frustation at home and the call that "something be done." Mr. Carter's very use of the hostage crisis as the excuse for remaining in the Rose Garden so long had its political dimension. (Now, it seems, the crisis is lee of a crisis -- but is it? -- and the President is prepared go out on the hustings.)

There is little need to point out that, in the heat of the political campaign , US foreign policy interests are being damaged.

The second and a related, problem which concerns us is presidential credibility. American leadership has come to be perceived abroad as weak and vacillating. That is not because the United States is in fact weak, or that it does not have a basically agreed foreign policy. It arises largely from Mr. Carter's failure at times to recognized the importance of maintaining integrity of communication and consultation in his dealings with other nations, especially allies.

Seen from abroad, he has sometimes looked less than honest and consistent. He pressured West Germany to accept deployment of the neutron bomb, for instance , and then abruptly said the US would not build it after all. He flatly told the West Europeans the US would not impose a boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow, and then proceeded to call for it. Worst of all, he unblinkingly assured Japan and Western Europe when pressing for joint economic sanctions against Iran that the US would not undertake a military operation there -- even while the rescue mission was already underway. He thus won their support in a way that damaged his credibility.

It would not seem to be in keeping with Mr. Carter's own piety to deliberately mislead or deceive. But the President must surely understand that, from another's point of view, such actions call in question the nation's integrity as well as diplomatic judgment. He should be the first to recognize that, however strong the nation is or might become militarily, firepower will coutn for nought in the long run if it is not firmly based on moral strength. It is in fact only to the extent that the US acts, as well as speaks, from the highest of principles and motives that it can hope to sway the course of human events constructively. When it does, it gains. When it does not, it invariably loses. Hence the importance of not slipping from a high plateau of national rectitude.

We believe President Carter would share this view. We cannot reasonably expect him to ignore the political component in formulating and carrying out foreign policy. But, with six months still to go before the November election, and with a new secretary of state, he has an opportunity to show that on critical issues -- SALT, the Middle East, Iran --precedence over narrower domestic considerations.

Who knows, that may even assure him reelection.

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