RONALD Reagan needs George Shultz. Now more than ever. The standing of the secretary of state has been badly compromised by the Iran affair, for which he should bear no responsibility, since he opposed the arms-for-hostages operation from the outset. This comes after a string of administration foreign policy miscues: the Libyan disinformation campaign, the Nicholas Daniloff case, the disappointment that inevitably followed the unbridled arms negotiations at the Reykjavik summit, the capture of American pilot Hasenfus and his sentencing in Nicaragua for delivering arms to the administration's contra forces there. For these likewise Mr. Shultz should not be held chiefly responsible.
The prospect of his resignation is of course raised by his admission that he had only fragmentary knowledge of the Iran dealings and that his reservations did not prevail. A secretary of state should occupy the mainstream of an administration's foreign policy, not be relegated to the shoals.
And yet on most of these matters, the secretary was on the side of better judgment, if not the prevailing side in the internal debate.
Shultz has given a clear impression of integrity, consistency of argument, and loyalty to the President. This is a time, frankly, when inconsistency, confusion, deliberate fudging if not duplicity, have come to characterize the administration's handling of foreign policy initiatives. Allowing Shultz to resign would mean a further erosion of confidence in the President's conduct of foreign affairs.
President Reagan in his comments to the nation tonight should reaffirm his reliance on his secretary of state. There is more that the President should do to restore confidence that his administration is on top of things.
He should drop the notion that every time something goes wrong with an administration initiative all he has to do is go on national television and contend that everything is fine when it isn't.
He should stop blaming the press for misconstruing the ``facts'' at the same time he dispatches his top aides for a media blitz. The time has passed for his administration to rely on ``damage control'' operations, when the fault lies in defective policies.
Politically, the President should recognize that his administration has entered its fourth and concluding quarter. To be effective, he must build bridges to the opposition majority party in Congress. Shultz has the stature to help here.
A confrontational approach will not work. Nor will appealing over the heads of Congress to an increasingly skeptical public. The President will want to look at his White House team - the National Security Council and top White House staff, where the steadying hand of former chief of staff James Baker III is missed.
Ultimately, the responsibility for how things are going is the President's. He is loyal to aides who have been loyal to him. He has fleshed out his team with people who reinforce his nostalgic leanings, his reliance on anecdote, not analysis, and with those who count too much on his ability to ``communicate'' his way out of trouble.
This is a time to emphasize continuity and integrity in foreign policy. George Shultz is the best man now for that job.