Fine-tuning US foreign policy. The means were flawed, but the strategic goals remain, experts say

Now that the Iran-contra affair has been exhaustively aired before the eyes of the world for three months, what lessons for United States foreign policy are emerging from the congressional hearings that will end this week? According to analysts both inside and outside government, there are several principal lessons about the ways in which the US deals with the world to be drawn from the affair. Among them are:

America has to be more consistent and predictable in its foreign policy.

It must learn to cope with low-level conflicts, terrorism, and hostage-taking without distorting its own political system.

And, inevitably, it has to come to terms with Iran.

But it is equally important, some experts say, to be clear that the Iran-contra affair does not represent the final fracturing of the post-World War II American consensus on foreign policy goals. The goals remain clear, they say; at issue are the means and methods to reach them.

``On balance, it probably left the dynamics of [US foreign] policy pretty much as they were,'' says Bruce Weinrod, a senior foreign-affairs analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

Rep. Jim Courter (R) of New Jersey, like other observers, posits that there is no universal impact of the Iran-contra affair on US standing in the world.

Those countries that did not trust the US before have had their suspicions strengthened, he says, and those that viewed the US as a constructive force in the world still do.

But, says Congressman Courter, covertly selling arms to Iran in order to secure the release of American hostages was directly at odds with stated US foreign policy. That, he says, was a serious error.

``Sometimes, we're very confusing'' to the world, Courter says. ``Our foreign policy should be predictable.''

Mr. Weinrod echoes this conclusion. One of the more damaging aspects of the Iran-contra affair, he says, is that it ``creates a perception that this is a government that is incapable of carrying out a consistent foreign policy.''

Many analysts seem to agree that to the extent the Iran-contra affair has affected US standing in the world, it is because of the substance of the policies involved and not because of any perceived disarray in the policymaking process.

``I don't think the rest of the world gives a lot of thought to the way in which we set American foreign policy,'' Courter says.

Of the Middle East, Weinrod says, ``Overall, the leaderships don't seem to be worried about our political process. The bottom line is coherence and consistency of purpose.''

As for US standing in Central America, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and an expert on US foreign policy, says, ``I don't know that [the affair] made a lot of difference one way or the other.''

If anything, Weinrod asserts, the process of publicly examining and criticizing the administration ``shows the underlying stability'' of the American governmental process.

Mr. Sonnenfeldt also thinks the American process has won respect in some eyes as a result of the Iran-contra affair. ``I have the feeling, especially in Europe, where criticism has been the harshest, that there's also a sort of admiration for the process,'' he says.

The Iran-contra hearings have demonstrated that ``there's nothing wrong with the system,'' says Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, the vice-chairman of the Senate committee investigating the scandal.

But, Senator Rudman adds, ``There's a lot wrong with the way people act sometimes.''

The Iran-contra affair has spotlighted a rift between the administration and Congress on Central American policy. But, notes Sonnenfeldt, it's important not to inflate the importance of that rift.

``The breakdown of the consensus [in American foreign policy] is something we've talked about since the Vietnam war,'' says Sonnenfeldt.

In fact, he says, there are many areas of agreement on foreign policy between Congress and the administration and between Republicans and Democrats.

He notes that there is no real argument on the need, for example, to support resistance fighters in Afghanistan or to oppose Soviet expansionism in Central America.

What is at issue, says Sonnenfeldt, is the specific methods to curb Soviet influence in the world's trouble spots.

It is particularly hard to determine the appropriate response to ``low-level conflict, indirect aggression,'' Weinrod says. ``How can a democracy respond to this kind of thing in ways that are consistent with its own values?'' he asks.

Roy Godson, associate professor of government at Georgetown University, says it would be unwise to conclude from the Iran-contra affair that American intelligence activities need to be curbed.

``There's a danger here that in the wake of the Iran-contra affair, there will be a temptation to overreact and impose restrictions in the future that will be found to be unwise,'' he says.

Indeed, says one intelligence analyst, the Iran-contra affair only points up the need to strengthen American intelligence capabilities in areas like Iran.

The ``collection [and] analysis [of intelligence data] on Iran are weak,'' says the analyst, ``very weak.''

The Iran-contra affair, the analyst explains, was in some respects the Reagan administration's reaction to that weakness, ``a frustration, ... a perception that the bureaucracy couldn't handle the job.''

Many experts criticize the specific way in which the US sought an opening with Iran - by sending in arms to extract hostages. But they also argue that some sort of rapprochement with Iran is inevitable, especially after the passing from the scene of the current Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran is ``trying to push us out the Middle East,'' says the intelligence analyst, and has set itself up as the United States's chief adversary in region.

But, notes Sonnenfeldt, Iran is strategically positioned in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and has the Soviet Union on its border. Those factors, Sonnenfeldt says, cannot be altered by ``the follow-on regime'' after Ayatollah Khomeini.

``The geopolitical realities, sooner or later, reassert themselves,'' Sonnenfeldt says, and they will impel Iran and the US to come to terms with one another.

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