SECRETARIES of defense have long shown a reluctance about committing forces abroad without clear direction from the Oval Office and, particularly since Vietnam, without sufficiently broad public backing. Also, it is not bad budget strategy, when going after big bucks, to show some reluctance to use all that expensive might. So when Caspar Weinberger, today's defense secretary, does these things as the Reagan administration attempts to rough in its budget and foreign policy for the next term, we are on familiar ground.
Secretaries of state, whose forte one would think would be mediation, ironically often talk about the possible use of military power to enhance the attractiveness of negotiation. Secretary of State George Shultz, reputedly the man of moderation on the Reagan foreign and security affairs team, has been fairly bristling with assertiveness in his public speeches. He argues that self-preservation alone does not sum up America's responsibility in arms. Protecting international peace, responding in kind to terrorists or even staging anti-terrorist strikes, willingness to act first and secure public support later are among his differences with Mr. Weinberger on the use of force.
The American pullout from Lebanon, which was the right move, has nonetheless cost the United States credibility as a persistent influence in the Middle East. Deeds set the price on words. Cutting US losses has made it harder for Mr. Shultz to convince potential partners in that region of American commitment.
Too, a Shultz in hawk wings may make it easier to accept a Shultz in dove voice when seeking more constructive relations with the Soviets.
Any openings that might come from Mr. Shultz's January talks with Soviet counterpart Andrei Gromyko will face opposition within the United States, and most formidably from within Mr. Weinberger's Pentagon.
Beyond this, the Shultz-Weinberger rivalry assumes a mixture of policy, institutional, and stylistic differences. The Shultz camp wants to offer some specific arms bargaining option, possibly to encourage some evolution in the talks structure, while Weinberger's camp want to hold pat with existing positions and venues. Differences over technology sales to the East bloc preceded Mr. Shultz's tenure at state - stirring quite a row during Mr. Reagan's economic and NATO summit tour to Europe in 1982, just before Alexander Haig's ascendant star as the administration's ranking moderate went into eclipse.
A spirited cabinet rivalry should be expected of any administration - and especially one heading into a second term unmotivated by the political pressures of re-election. We continue to be wary, however, of the potential for stalemate. It is up to the President himself to see that this does not happen.
In this case, there are signs that Senate Republicans may be gearing up to enter the foreign policy debate more fully themselves.
Sen. Richard Lugar, new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has announced a sweeping review of American foreign policy early next year. Present and former diplomatic and national security officials and analysts of stature will testify. This represents an unusual opportunity to educate public and administration alike, and to help lay a bipartisan congressional base for foreign relations. The proof of the Lugar educational enterprise will be in the performance, however. Attempts to stack the deck - openly with the selection of testifiers or behind the scenes with a purge of the committee staff - will only further weaken the committee's input in determining policy.
An independent, distinct Senate voice in foreign affairs is as needed at this time as an open, unmuffled debate within the Cabinet itself.