We have more light this week on how the great decisions both in foreign and domestic policy are made in the Reagan White House. It shows that forecasting what Ronald Reagan will do or not do is an art, not a science. This new light comes out in the form of a statement by a former White House speech writer, Bentley Elliott. He told the New York Times that he had been ``dismissed'' from the White House staff. He has gone over to the presidential campaign team of Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York.
According to White House-watchers at the New York Times and the Washington Post who have delved deeply into the ramifications and implications of the Elliott affair, the net effect of the dismissal is virtually to isolate Pat Buchanan, White House director of communications. He has theoretical charge over the speech-writing shop.
Mr. Buchanan, so the accounts go, had wanted Mr. Elliott to stay, or to be replaced by writer Margaret Noonan. Both Elliott and Ms. Noonan are rated in inner White House circles as being ideological ``conservatives,'' as distinct from members of the other White House factions usually labeled as ``pragmatists.'' Both Elliott and Noonan have left the White House.
Buchanan is widely known to be an active proponent of all the things that identify a modern ``conservative,'' as the word is understood in the Reagan White House. It means, for example, being against affirmative action in domestic affairs and favoring efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in foreign policy.
It also means maximum anticommunism, avoiding talks and agreements with the Soviets, bashing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and fullest support for Israel. The Strategic Defense Initiative (or ``star wars'') and large-as-possible military budgets are also on the ``conservative'' agenda.
The great champion of all these causes inside the White House has been Mr. Buchanan, who as communications director is officially in charge of shaping and projecting the presidential image. The speech writers are under him. And now, he has lost two of the most conservative members of his staff. They were pushed out, so the accounts go, by Chief of Staff Donald Regan, not primarily because they were ``conservative,'' but because they pushed so hard for their views.
In the Carter administration, one knew at all times exactly where the president was trying to go. He had clear goals. One knew in advance that he would work consistently and tenaciously toward those goals and that he would be backed by his White House staff.
The Reagan White House is not like that. The President himself has a set of rhetorical goals, but he does not push toward all of them all the time. Sometimes he does not push at all. And sometimes he changes course.
In foreign policy, he put United States Marines in Lebanon. When the deployment cost him two expensive airplanes and the lives of 241 US Marines, he redeployed the Marines elsewhere. Since then, he has invaded Grenada but not Nicaragua. He has bombed Libya but not Syria. He announced that he would scrap two old submarines to keep the US inside the limits that SALT II put on nuclear-delivery vehicles. Then he announced he is no longer bound by the treaty.
In theory, national policy is made by wise men and women sitting in solemn conclave and working out the solution to any governmental problem in a scholarly, orderly process. In practice, proposed policies arrive at the White House and then become the object of an internal battle within the staffs. A policy favored by the State Department (or Pentagon) might be reversed -- not in a formal Cabinet decision but in a choice of words by a speech writer down in the boiler room.
We know from earlier reporting that the decision to scrap the two submarines in order to stay inside the SALT II limits was hotly resisted up to the last possible moment. External evidence would indicate that the anti-arms control faction (a segment of the new conservative community) was galvanized by that defeat to the supreme effort that won for them the next round and the presidential decision to reject treaty limits in the future.
This week, Elliott and Noonan are writing speeches in some other place for some other person. Their former boss, Pat Buchanan, is still at the White House, but he is an isolated defender of the conservative faith no longer able to pick his own subordinates. There are thus new uncertainties in the policymaking process. This week the Buchanan point of view is receding.
But foreign offices trying to anticipate what Washington will do should be wary of drawing conclusions. This week's recessive theme could be next week's dominant one. There seems to be a precarious balance between ideologues and pragmatists in the Reagan White House. One can anticipate what Ronald Reagan will think he wants to do on any given subject, but what he actually will do is a different matter.
Undoubtedly, he would like to send the Marines into Nicaragua and wipe the Sandinistas off the face of the earth. But will he? Probably not.