One hears it all about town - George Shultz has come into his own. After a long period of uncertainty, confusion, and mismanagement in United States foreign policy, say administration insiders and outsiders alike, the Reagan administration is demonstrating a new vitality and sense of purpose. Secretary of State Shultz is now viewed as ``in charge'' and running with the diplomatic ball.
``He's demonstrated some skillful diplomacy in recent weeks,'' one US official says. ``He's now the anchorman of this administration.''
A foreign ambassador comments: ``Shultz all along was competent, but we were disappointed that he seemed not to display much initiative. Now we're seeing a different secretary of state.''
Whether tangible gains for US foreign policy will emerge in these waning months of the Reagan administration remains to be seen. But Washington is witnessing a whirl of diplomatic activity across a broad front:
In meetings with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir this week, Mr. Shultz is working to advance a plan for peace negotiations in the Middle East.
Next week the secretary meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to continue clearing away obstacles to a strategic nuclear arms agreement and prepare for the superpower summit meeting in Moscow.
State Department aides are vigorously engaged in promising behind-the-scenes diplomacy on the issues of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, and Angola.
There are reasons for the surge of diplomatic energy. President Reagan, for one, has little to focus on in his final term of office other than foreign policy, a position not uncommon for chief executives in the twilight of their leadership. In Mr. Reagan's case, the damage done to American policy by the Iran-contra fiasco lends even greater urgency to restoring the image of his presidency and ending it on a note of accomplishment.
Shultz is also helped by the departure from the administration of the ultraconservative elements that made it so difficult to reach a policy consensus. There are continuing internal divisions on arms control and other issues. But the ``professionalization'' of the administration, including the selection of Frank Carlucci as secretary of defense and Lt. Gen. Colin Powell as national-security adviser, has helped facilitate policymaking.
``Unlike the earlier part of his tenure, there's greater consensus in the inner circle,'' a prominent foreign diplomat observes. ``There's much greater coherence now and a consensual point of view.''
State Department and White House aides give General Powell high marks for steady, workmanlike efficiency. That he does not seek the limelight, but works quietly to bring various options before the President in the decisionmaking process enables Shultz, Secretary Carlucci, and other Cabinet secretaries to occupy the spotlight in the conduct and articulation of policy.
Another factor helping Shultz is foreign policy circumstances themselves. With Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pressing diplomatic change abroad as well as reform at home, with Palestinian unrest exploding in the Middle East, and with the Iran-Iraq war threatening stability in the Gulf, the administration not only is forced to take diplomatic steps, but also faces opportunities for creative thinking.
Shultz has not had the reputation of a foreign policy innovator. He has been criticized for a lack of zeal on the Mideast question and his inability to win internal battles. But he emerged from the Iran-contra scandal with greater stature, one of a handful of officials who spoke out against the President's policies. Now his low-key, businesslike approach to problems and his reputation for integrity are winning him plaudits.
``The administration is finally putting it together,'' says a Republican senator knowledgeable about foreign policy.
At the recent NATO summit meeting in Brussels, a US official says, the secretary of state was a ``pillar of consistency at a time when the President was sick and missing conversation.'' At that point, Shultz stepped in to reassure the European allies.
While Shultz is given credit for putting US-Soviet relations on a more stable and constructive path, diplomatic observers are withholding their overall judgment on the Reagan-Shultz legacy.
``The fact that Shultz is in charge is not a success,'' comments Zbigniew Brzezinski, national-security adviser in the Carter administration. ``You assume that's a point of departure. The real answers will come this fall. If the Soviets are withdrawing from Afghanistan, if there's an acceptable START agreement, if you have movement in the Middle East, he will come out looking pretty good.''
If there is no strategic arms agreement or progress in the Middle East, Dr. Brzezinski says, ``that's not much for eight years. ... It's too early for kudos for doing what you should have been doing for eight years.''
But, says Brzezinski, Shultz has ``played it well'' in the Middle East over the past three months, following a long period of administration passivity.
State Department officials acknowledge there are gaps in administration policy. The formulation and execution of policy on Central America, for example, is viewed by many as a ``mess,'' in large because Shultz has continued to rely on Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who has been tarnished by the Iran-contra affair.
All along, however, Shultz has strongly supported the President's policy in Nicaragua, including economic and military aid for the contra rebels.