The defeat of President Reagan's nominee to head the State Department's human rights bureau has boosted the morale of liberal senators and human rights organizations.
But where the withdrawal of Ernest W. Lefever, the assistant secretary of state-designate, leaves President Reagan's human rights policy remains unclear. Initial indications are that the President may decide not to fill the State Department position for some time. Or he may seek to abolish the post altogether.
In the meantime, many of Mr. Lefever's opponents, both inside and outside the Senate, see his withdrawal as one of their few significant victories in foreign affairs in many months. Some see it as an indication that there are limits on the mandate which the US public gave to President Reagan in last November's election.
Key Senate aides who did much of the research on the Lefever nomination said that while people gave Reagan a mandate to realign the US economy and to formulate a strong foreign policy, they clearly were not ready to give up the vigorous pursuit of human rights objectives overseas. This is also the way in which some private and religious organizations are interpreting the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote of 13 to 4 on June 5 which recommended that the Senate reject the Lefever nomination. Of the 13 senators voting no, 5 were Republicans, among them the committee chairman, Charles H. Percy of Illinois.
In an interview with the New York Times, Lefever himself argued that he had been the victim of a "scurrilous gutter campaign" of "character assassination" carried out by news organizations and fed by an alliance of pacifists and "antidefense" groups who concocted "ridiculous charges" against him. He denied that he was more sensitive to human rights abuses in communist countries than he was to those carried out by the authoritarian governments of US allies.
The law provides that the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs serve as an advocate for human rights in all countries. Senate aides said that those voting against Lefever did so for a combination of reasons, but primarily because they did not think he would be a strong advocate for human rights when it came to conservative regimes allied with the United States. They cited "misleading" and "evasive" answers given in testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee and a possible conflict of interest caused by Nestle Corporation contributions to Lefever's Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research organizations, as reasons. Some also mentioned the opposition to Lefever which came from his brother Donald as a contributing factor in the vote.
Senator Percy was concerned that Lefever seemed to view the opposition to his nomination as "Communist-inspired." During a committee hearing, the senator disclosed that Lefever had used the world "communism" in connection with the opposition campaign against him in conversations with staff members and with two senators, including Percy himself. Lefever said he believed he did not use the word "communism." But Percy was clearly dissatisfied with his response on this subject.
At the outset, few of the organizers of the campaign against Lefever seemed to think he could be beaten. One of the few who correctly predicted more than a month ago that the committee would reject Lefever was Eric Hochstein, a former Senate aide and the sole full-time organizer for an ad hoc committee of private and religious organizations which formed to protest the Lefever nomination. Many members thought the best they could hope for was to produce a large enough vote against Lefever to "send a signal" to the Reagan administration on human rights and to place some constraints on Lefever once he was in office.
Mr. Hochstein, a 25-year-old former specialist on human rights issues and foreign affairs on the staff of Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, said that the groups joining against Lefever were "a very traditional, liberal bunch of organizations." A few weeks ago, Hochstein, who describes himself as a "pragmatic liberal," acquired a desk at the offices of the Women's International League and moved his typewriter there.
Hochstein scoffs at the idea, suggested by Lefever in his New York Times interview, that the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) was "particularly active" in the campaign against his nomination.
"IPS was one of the groups that got together with about half a dozen other groups in February when it was decided that something had to be done," said Hochstein. "After that meeting in February, IPS was almost uninvolved.