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Washington flip-flops

It would be an unusual US administration that could start off with its diplomatic posture, policies, and positions firmly in place. So too much should not be made of the fact that the Reagan establishment is not yet put together and operating smoothly. This takes a bit of time. But, in view of pointed promises made of a consistent, steady, and reliable foreign policy under President Reagan (in contrast to the so-supposedly inconsistent, erratic, unreliable policy during the Carter years) it should not go unnoticed that the administration is early causing itself some unnecessary problems abroad -- and precisely because of inconsistency.

Item. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger first said he favored production and deployment of the neutron bomb. This set off a storm in Western Europe. Secretary of State Alexander Haig quickly sent off a message to all NATO members assuring them there had been no change in US policy and there would be full consultations before such a decision was made. Mr. Weinberger continues to speak out in favor of the bomb.

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Item. The State Department, asked about events in Poland this week, first said that a Polish military intervention against workers to restore order would be viewed as "a Polish matter." This seemed to indicate unconcern -- something the US had consistently sought to avoid conveying. Backtracking, State issued a subsequent written clarification stating the US would not be "indifferent" to a Polish crackdown but would look on it with "very great concern."

Item. Also on the subject of Poland, the State Department at first seemed to exclude US economic aid to the Warsaw government unless there were economic reforms. Later it indicated the US was sympathetic to Poland's difficulties and was considering what might be done to help alleviate them.

Item. In his first news conference President Reagan stated that the Israeli settlements established in the occupied West Bank were not "illegal" under present UN resolutions. This abruptly reversed the long-time, consistent US position that the planting of such Jewish settlements is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. That law states that an occupying power shall not transfer parts of its own civilian population into territory it occupies. Where the US does stand now is not clear.

These flip-flops have raised eyebrows in chanceries around the world. They seem to reflect in part the indecision of a new government and in part the somewhat awkward problem of wanting to strike out with a differently oriented foreign policy yet coming back to many of the Carter positions. The reversals are cited not to prejudge the Reagan administration -- the confusion should dissipate once the foreign policy makers know what they want to do and say -- but rather as a reminder that consistency and steadiness do not come from the mere wishing of it. Like every president before him, Ronald Reagan will have to work at it.

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