Groping toward a foreign policy

Many have been urging President Reagan to lay out the basic lines of his foreign policy in a major speech. They are right on one count. Clarity about United States policy and its premises and priorities is essential for coherence and coordination within the executive branch and Congress, and for understanding by the US public, its allies, and its adversaries.

Yet that is lacking today. There is confusion at home and abroad about many of its key aspects: on military strategy and arms control; on relations with the Soviet Union; on critical issues with allies; on the Middle East; and on the approach to Africa and especially South Africa.

In fact, however, such a speech would have been counterproductive up to now. It will be premature until the underlying premises and policies are sorted out. Mr. Reagan took office with a very limited grasp of foreign affairs. An early speech would almost surely have restated many of the slogans and simplicities of his campaign. Silence was better than that. Time was needed for stubborn reality to educate the administration in the complexity of many problems and the necessity for different approaches.

In the past six months crises, allied pressures, and public criticism have modified many of the former positions:

* Initially, the administration seemed to view international affairs almost wholly through an East-West prism, as shown by El Salvador and the first approach to the Middle East. Now, its perspective has widened a bit, with more recognition of the significance of local and regional nationalism, rivalries, and interests and even of the North-South dimension.

* In relations with the USSR, it has begun to move beyond rhetoric into more concrete issues such as grain sales, trade, and arms control negotiations.

* In the Middle East, Reagan began with a total commitment to Israel, which he saw as a unique strategic asset against Soviet influence. That view must surely have been shaken by Haig's trip to the Middle East and Begin's recent actions, but the President has yet to express a more balanced attitude, or to recognize the necessity of addressing the Palestinian issue, despite Begin's efforts to stonewall on it.

* The tilt in favor of South Africa is apparently being somewhat modified, under pressure from the European allies and African states.

* The administration is also having to review its narrow view of the developing countries, primarily as areas of Soviet competition, and its disinterest or worse in the International Bank and similar agencies.

* And, despite campaign rhetoric, the administration has begun to concern itself with nuclear proliferation, as a result of the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor.

This is progress, but there is still a long way to go. On the Middle East, strategy and aims are undefined. On arms control, Haig's speech set out some reasonable guidelines (though leaving the issue of linkage confused), but Eugene Rostow, new head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, admitted at his confirmation hearing that the administration has no idea what it wants in SALT III. And the Ottawa summit, despite the bland communique, showed how wide were the divergences between the US and its allies on many issues.

The pressure to clarify policy will be mounting in the months ahead. The coming visits of Sadat, the Saudi foreign minister, Begin, and Hussein will almost surely force the President to face up to the Palestinian issue. An October meeting in Mexico will focus on the developing countries. And the Europeans have been promised that talks with the Soviets on nuclear weapons in Europe will start in the fall. The President has apparently recognized the need to speed up the policy process, by scheduling mini-National Security Council meetings several times a week.

Under the circumstances, the hammering out of decisions to cope with specific issues as they arise or can be anticipated seems likely to be the most fruitful route toward an adequate foreign policy. At bottom, Mr. Reagan appears to be pragmatic and capable of adapting his views when helped by sound advice. The question is whether he will receive that assistance.

Thus far, the procedures for making foreign policy have hardly been adequate or effective. Downgrading the role of the national security assistant was correct, in my view, but that requires that the secretary of state be allowed to take the lead in developing policy. And the NSC machinery must ensure that the President has the opportunity for a full and informed discussion of issues before making decisions. The White House advisers closest to him, Messrs. Meese and Baker, have little or no background in foreign affairs, nor do the Cabinet members except for Secretary Haig, whose standing has had its ups and downs. This puts a premium on making effective use of the expertise of the specialists in the various departments, especially through reports, analyses, and commendations prepared jointly be assistant secretaries and their associates. Mr. Allen's main job should be to marshal this input for the NSC meetings.

Finally, the contribution of intelligence becomes especially important in ensuring realistic appraisal of the actual conditions within which policy must be made. Thus the CIA director should have a central role in getting a hearing for the intelligence analyses which may often conflict with preconceptions of key policy-makers. If Mr. Casey survives the current controversy, his intimacy with the President could be a unique advantage in playing that role on condition that he avoids becoming involved too deeply in making the policy choices. Otherwise, the result could be to policize the intelligence process it self.

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