Sen. Lugar and US foreign relations

Elevation of Richard G. Lugar to the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is greeted with satisfaction - and relief - in the foreign policy community here.

Relief because the Republican senator from Indiana, while a strong partisan of President Reagan, does not carry the heavy ideological baggage of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who could have had the post but decided to continue as chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

Satisfaction because the Senator Lugar is viewed as a thoughtful, fair-minded , articulate legislative leader and is expected to run the committee in low-key but able fashion.

''He does his homework, and he keeps an open mind,'' says a State Department official.

''It's a good choice,'' says David Newsom, director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. ''While he has conservative views, I have found him balanced and willing to listen to different points of view. He's not ideological.''

At the same time, there is a general concern that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has lost prestige in recent years and is no longer the prominent body it once was for encouraging and supporting a bipartisan United States foreign policy. The panel remains an important and influential institution. It confirms presidential appointments and authorizes US foreign aid. And every year the secretary of state must appear before the panel to discuss foreign policy issues.

But the committee has declined in stature, say many diplomatic and academic experts. One reason for this is the dispersal of power in the Congress itself, with a proliferation of committees and subcommittees and many different chairmen trying to get a piece of the foreign policy action. This has tended to weaken the Foreign Relations Committee.

Another factor is that the committee has become more politicized, perhaps reflecting the polarization of the country itself. It used to be served by a single staff of highly qualified experts. Today the Republicans and Democrats on the committe have their own staff members, making it more difficult to operate coherently. ''The staff has been strongly partisan,'' says a committee Republian aide. ''And the most difficult thing for us has been the partisanship of the Demorats on foreign policy. They have used the committee for criticizing the administration. They have not adjusted to the fact that they no longer have a majority in the Senate as they so long did. Bipartisanship used to mean Republicans supporting the Democrats.''

Also accounting for the perception of a loss of committee prestige, in the opinion of experts, is the fact that world circumstances have changed. There are no wrenching foreign policy crises pitting the committee chairman against the President, as in the 1960s and 1970s. When the committee supports the administration and there are no dramatic controversies, say staff aides, it gets less publicity in the news media.

It is recalled that J. W. Fulbright of Arkansas, when he was chairman, took on a standing president on the controversial issue of the Vietnam war and helped galvanize public opinion against it. Today the diplomatic problems are more incremental in nature.

''Fulbright was an activist,'' says Pat Holt, former chief of staff of the Foreign Relations Committee. ''The biggest power of a chairman is influence over agendas. Fulbright, instead of delaying things, pushed them, raising issues that the administration would not have wanted raised, like relations with China or Cuba.''

During the chairmanship of Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, a moderate Republican, the committee sometimes was slighted because the President Reagan turned to the broader Senate leadership to win support for his policies. But Senator Percy, who was lost his bid for reelection Nov. 6, is credited by many with exerting a moderating influence on Mr. Reagan in such areas as nuclear arms control, human rights in El Salvador, and foreign aid.

Analysts expect Lugar to be more attuned to the President. As a mainstream conservative, he supports the Reagan policies on the military buildup and a tough posture toward the Soviet Union. During the Carter administration he was a strong opponent of the SALT II arms control pacts and the Panama Canal treaties. His one major difference with Percy on foreign policy, says a committee aide, is his strong support for Turkey as against Greece on the Cyprus dispute and other issues between those two nations.

During the past two years Senator Lugar concentrated on the 1984 election and his role as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Although taking limited interest in foreign affairs, he did shepherd through a bill establishing a $50 million fund to assist study of the Soviet Union in American universities. He also acted as the President's point man in the Senate for repealing legislation that made possible the establishment of US diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

To what extent the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can assert itself during a second Reagan administration will depend on how Senator Lugar sees his role and how the President proceeds. Charles Doran, a foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins University, suggests that the committee is not insignificant but much will depend on its internal composition and ties with the White House.

''If the committee is to act in its traditional role of an independent source of analysis, reflecting bipartisanship and consensus, Lugar will have to challenge the President and his own party,'' Mr. Doran says. ''The White House could be comfortable with the feeling that the committee will not create any difficulties. But if it wants a consensus within the Senate it cannot rely on Lugar just to support White House positions.''

So far, however, the President Reagan's approach has been not to seek foreign policy consensus in the Congress but to take his case directly to the American people as a means of pressuring the legislators. Lugar, for his part, is not generally viewed as someone who would be a forceful challenger of the President.

''I presume he'll be a team player,'' says Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. ''If Reagan does negotiate an arms agreement, he would trust him to have respected US interests and would defend it.''

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