United States Secretary of State George Shultz spent five hours in Brussels Tuesday intending to smooth ruffled feathers within the NATO alliance. But he found his task complicated by events in the Middle East. The occasion for his visit was a meeting of NATO foreign ministers called by Belgium and the Netherlands following President Reagan's failure to invite those two nations and several other key NATO allies to a meeting in New York next week. The meeting was called to discuss alliance strategy in advance of Mr. Reagan's summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva next month.
By all accounts, the Belgians and Dutch appear to have been appeased, if not completely satisfied, by Mr. Shultz's visit.
In a speech Monday in San Francisco, Shultz said the Reagan administration will continue development and testing of its antimissile defense system ``in accordance with restrictive interpretation of the [Anti-Ballistic Missile] treaty's obligations,'' rather than according to the broader interpretation that the administration feels ``is fully justified.'' He repeated this pledge to NATO foreign ministers here.
``Mr. Shultz's visit demonstrates how sensitive he is to the need to continue substantive consultations within the NATO alliance,'' Belgian Foreign Minister L'eo Tindemans said.
The issue dominating the Shultz's visit to Brussels was the deepening diplomatic row between the US and Italy provoked by the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists last week.
At a hastily arranged 30-minute meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti, who was here to attend the NATO meeting, Shultz expressed his ``disappointment'' at the Italian government's release of Muhammad Abbas, the Palestinian leader who the US claims masterminded the hijacking in which an American passenger was killed.
Mr. Andreotti had called the meeting in an attempt to smooth over differences between the two sides over the issue, according to Italian officials.
This, however, does not appear to have happened, and US officials accompanying Shultz fear that US-Italian relations could remain difficult for some time to come.
Italian officials said that Andreotti had gone to some pains to explain to Shultz the reasons behind his government's decision to free Abbas, saying that the US did not offer arguments ``adequate to the criteria'' imposed by Italian legislation for extradition to the US.