The contrast is startling between the inept muddle over the Siberian pipeline affair and the smooth professionalism of President Reagan's act of initiative toward peace in the Middle East.
The first of these affairs has been marked by conflict within the administration, lack of advance consultation with allies, no scouting of the diplomatic terrain, no calculation of the chances for success or failure, no weighing of costs against possible results. It was quite obviously a case of the White House doggedly doing something it wanted to do against the advice of the State, Treasury, and Commerce Departments and without cooperation from them.
The Middle East initiative wins the highest applause in the diplomatic community on grounds of professionalism, as well as for soundness of content. It had everything the pipeline affair did not.
First, the President placed the American position solidly on the record set by his four predecessors - Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Next, he assured himself of the full approval and support of the four departments of government most concerned - State, Defense, Treasury, and Commerce. Then he canvassed the political situation inside Israel itself. Finally, his emissaries considered the views of those Arab countries most important to the ultimate success or failure of the operation - Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Add that the whole operation was thought through so carefully in advance that the White House was prepared for the expectable wail of protest from Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and dealt with it coolly and without allowing itself to be pushed off course. The President's men went right ahead gathering in support for the President's new position.
The most important single feature of the operation was taking a stand on what virtually has been the position all along of the opposition party in Israel itself. Shimon Peres, leader of the Israeli Labor Party, has always favored the concept (inherent in both United Nations Resolution 242 and in the Camp David accords) that at the right moment Israel should trade off the territories it captured in 1967 for a secure and lasting peace.
The President cannot effectively be labeled as being hostile to Israel when he adopts the position of the party of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Moshe Dayan - all of whom presumably would have approved the American position, and initiative, were they alive today.
As it was, Mr. Peres, leader of the Labor Party, and Abba Eban, its most prestigious spokesman on foreign affairs, promptly came out in approval of the new American initiative. So too did the spokesmen of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
And so too, back on the American political scene, did former President Carter , who came out on the first day in full support of President Reagan.
The only sour note sounded at home was by Democratic presidential hopeful Walter Mondale who, obviously, had not been recruited into the operation. One wonders whether it was because he was not considered important enough, or because he was afraid to lose Jewish support. As it was, he became very nearly the only important political voice outside Israel to condemn the initiative of the American President.
Mr. Mondale echoed Mr. Begin's complaint by saying that the President had ''undermined'' Israel. He said the Reagan proposal was ''biased in favor of the Arabs.''
In diplomatic quarters the only serious point raised in criticism was that the President should have done it sooner. The answer is probably that not until Mr. Begin exposed the radicalism of his purposes and means by his invasion of Lebanon and bombing of west Beirut could the President have dared take up such a solid position against him.
One is left wondering about the contrast between two foreign policy operations which have overlapped in time. How could the same White House which handled the pipeline affair so ineptly have come to professional maturity over the Middle East? The answer that comes most easily to mind is that the pipeline affair was launched while Alexander Haig was still secretary of state, and opposing the operation. In those days the administration was not coordinated within itself. Conflicting policies developed.
The Mideast operation was generated after George Shultz took over the State Department. Part of the operation involved Secretary of Defense Weinberger going to Tel Aviv and Cairo on a selling job for the operation. Messrs. Shultz and Weinberger are old friends and associates.
The plain competence of the new operation is a welcome improvement in Washington.