An urgent need

AN urgent need now confronts the White House, and it is a need that transcends the politics of party and personality. The need is to dispel swiftly the perception of drift and confusion in the direction of foreign policy. The need is to reinject discipline and cohesion and integrity into a foreign policy that has chalked up many achievements under President Reagan, but which is now in danger of being remembered for its recent unsophisticated stumbling.

Mr. Reagan did not meet this pressing need for revitalization and reinvigoration at his Wednesday night press conference. He seemed wounded and bedeviled by contradictions. Candor had been urged of him, and candor, in a sense, he gave: ``I believe in the correctness of my decision,'' he said of the Iran debacle. But that was not the answer that most of his citizens wanted to hear, for they have made clear that they strongly disapprove of an initiative that involved sending arms to a country up to its extremist elbows in terrorism and international mischief.

In authorizing that initiative, Mr. Reagan made a number of critical mistakes.

He gave extraordinary operational latitude to his National Security Council staff, the caliber of which is not what it once was.

He bypassed his professional diplomats at the State Department.

He overrode a couple of Cabinet secretaries who opposed the plan. One of them was his secretary of state, George P. Shultz, whose advice, had Mr. Reagan taken it, would have saved him from the mess he is in.

He alienated Congress by failing to consult or inform it.

He antagonized at least two former Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, by not consulting them about what he was doing, or even briefing them about it afterward. He upset such allies as Sen. Barry Goldwater.

He disappointed, by the action itself and the way he tried to explain it, the puzzled American people.

But this sorry chapter in the history of non-diplomacy is behind us. The Iranians have their weapons, the same number of American hostages are in captivity, and the United States has achieved nothing for its effort, except given comfort to its critics, discombobulation to its allies, and sewn confusion among its own citizens. So the need is to move forward, shake up the foreign policy apparatus, reform and more clearly define the decisionmaking process, and proceed to a more intelligent agenda.

This is not a matter of political damage control or public relations ``spin.'' It is not a question of how the President is faring in the public opinion polls. It is not really a matter of personalities, although some, I suspect, will have to be dumped or reassigned.

It is a question of reasserting stability and direction in a foreign policy that has recently gone off the rails.

While all this may be a cause for Republican embarrassment, it should be no cause for Democratic smugness, for a foreign policy in such disarray serves no American well. Nor is it only an American concern. For when a power with such worldwide interests and responsibilities as the US falters, that has significance far beyond US borders.

Ronald Reagan's foreign policy achievements are many. He put the US on the side of democracy in the Philippines. He has consolidated a workmanlike relationship with China. He has understood the new Japan. Despite the collapse of the Reykjavik summit, he has moved the US to within striking distance of important arms control accords with the Soviet Union. He is maintaining a dialogue - prickly, true, but what else can one expect? - with the new Soviet leadership. He has held a cantankerous and disparate Europe together in its always questioning alliance with the US. He has refurbished America's military strength and achieved grudging Soviet respect for it.

Now he needs to move swiftly and decisively to ensure that these gains will not be eclipsed by recent absurdities.

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