President Carter is under pressure to show that he has a coherent foreign policy -- that he is not just reacting to events but can look ahead. Administration officials say that thanks to developments in both Iran and Afghanistan, the polical climate now is such that the President must give at least the impression that he has a realistic long-range vision of the future in South Asia and in the nearby oil- supplying countries of the Middle East.
And that vision obviously must include a grasp of what America's vital interest in those regions are and an explanation of what the United States must do over the long run to defend those interests. It also is clear that if President Carter does not come up with some of the answers, his political opponents will.
The pressure on Mr. Carter comes not just from outside the administration, however, but also from within -- from officials who think that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's lawyer-like approach -- an approach that tends to disavow the linkage between issues and deal with each issue separately -- no longer applies to the threat that the US faces from the Soviet Union.
In its lead article Jan. 13, the New York Times reported that President Carter is preparing a major speech to set out a "new American strategic doctrine" to contain that threat during the 1980s. The article, which appeared to have as its source either the President himself or authoritative sources inside the White House, said it was understood that Mr. Carter senses a parallel to President Harry Truman's stern reaction to Soviet threats to Greece and Turkey in 1947 and the birth of the Truman doctrine of "containment" of the Soviets.
But if President Carter is clear on what he wants to do in the way of strategy, it is not yet that evident within the bureaucracy. One gets the impression that the President's speech is still in the tentative stages, with much yet to be argued out and decided.
"It would be premature to say there's a grand design or a grand concept," said one official.
And if Mr. Carter decides to come out with a "Carter doctrine" for the 1980s, it will mark a considerable departure from the approach he seemed to be set on earlier in his administration.
When Mr. Carter came to office three years ago, foreign policy planners at the State Department stressed that the world had grown so diverse and complex that it was best not to have anything like a Truman doctrine. Lurking behind this were what were considered to be lessons from Vietnam. In the view of a number of high-ranking State Department officials, America's costly disaster in Vietnam resulted from an overly rigid interpretation of the doctrine of containment of both the Soviet Union and China. This doctrine served well in the immediate post-World War II period, State Department official said, but has grown less useful in a world of greater diversity.
At any rate, some of the elements of President Carter's possible strategic reaction to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are becoming clear: He seems to be moving toward the stationing of a permanent American naval force in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea while ruling out the basing of American ground forces in any sizable numbers in the Middle East. When it comes to providing military aid to Pakistan, he seems favor doing this in concert with Saudi Arabia and China, rather than through unilateral US action.
The President is apparently ruling out the establishment of new American bases or the stationing of any large contingent of US military personnel in or near the Gulf on the grounds that bases and soldiers could become targets of internal dissent. Saudi Arabia has made clear it does not want to have bases near the Arabian peninsula but that it would not be opposed to an "over the horizon" increase in American naval forces.
Officials have yet to give clear reasons why the President seems to be ruling out the possibility of establishing bases in Sinai that are to be turned over by Israel to Egypt. Such bases would have the advantage of being far from population centers. But if the United States is to court Muslim countries in reaction to events in Iran and Afghanistan, it does not want to appear to be tying itself too closely in a strategic sense to Egypt and Israel. Egypt alienated many Muslim countries through its American-sponsored agreements with Israel. And few of the leaders in these countries seem to think much will come of the continuing talks between Egypt and Israel on "Palestinian autonomy.'
But whatever the President decides to do, he can be sure that on the political front his opponents will be talking more about strategy to contain the Soviets. John B. Connally, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination , stated Jan. 11 that American bases in Sinai might somehow have been used to counter the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran last November. He advocates three specifics: the stationing of major US air forces in "leasable" Sinai airfields; the deployment of a new fleet for permanent Indian Ocean service; and the development of a "fleet support capability" at Masirah Island off Oman.
Other candidates, too, sense that there are points to be made when it comes to bases and strategy: Jan Kalicki, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's chief aide for foreign affairs, said recently he thinks that instead of arriving at a long-range strategy, President Carter and his advisers have been making decisions on the deployment of forces and the use of bases in the Middle East in a "piecemeal" fashion.
But just in case the Republican candidates forget about strategy, there is always that most articulate of critics, a potential new secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to remind them to think big.