US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger arrived in Paris yesterday to conduct talks with French officials about the Atlantic alliance and defense cooperation. But the main preoccupation here is much more basic than that. The French are wondering what is happening to United States foreign policy, and who is formulating it. As the first high-level American official to travel abroad since the crisis over US arms sales to Iran began, Mr. Weinberger must deal with these concerns. After visiting France he heads on to Brussels for a meeting of NATO ministers, then to Morocco and London.
Publicly, French officials are circumspect in assessing the impact of the Iranian arms deal crisis on US foreign policy and relations with its allies. But privately, French officials and analysts are dismayed by the growing furor in the US about the Iranian arms deal. They are surprised at the damage it has done so far to President Reagan's popularity and are unsure where the controversy is leading.
``It's catastrophic,'' says Dominique Moisi, a foreign policy analyst.
``Europeans have the feeling that there is no US administration in control. Europeans like a US in control.''
The US has dealt France a double shock this fall. First was the Iceland summit, when the US talked seriously about the removal of ballistic missiles in Europe. Western allies felt they were not adequately consulted about the US position. While the results of the Reykjavik summit dismayed the French, however, it helped justify their wary and somewhat skeptical attitude toward US policy initiatives, exemplified in their refusal to allow American overflight rights for the US raid on Libya last April.
Now, the Iranian affair has discredited the US's strong anti-terrorism policy and thrown into question any new American policy initiatives in the Middle East.
In the short term, the US-Iran arms controversy has deflected criticism away from French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac for negotiating with Syria to control terrorism, and for trying to improve relations with Iran in the hopes of freeing French hostages in Lebanon. For the moment it has also, to the relief of Europeans, frozen any moves toward a Reykjavik formula that would leave Western Europe vulnerable to superior Soviet conventional forces.
But in the long term, the damage done to US prestige and influence abroad threatens to upset any short-term gains. ``The US has lost all of its credibility in terms of counterterrorism,'' says defense analyst Francois Heisbourg.
Even more distressing to Europeans is the prospect of longer-term paralysis in US foreign policy. Already the comparisons of Reagan's current predicament and Watergate are circulating in French political circles, along with the memories of Soviet gains in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, and South Yemen made during periods of US preoccupation with domestic problems.
And the US decision this past week to exceed the limitations of the Salt II treaty only added to French unease about the coherence of US foreign policy.