Jimmy Carter was faulted because, under his helmsmanship, the United States did not always speak with one voice. Ronald Reagan seeks to rectify that failing. He has promised a foreign policy that is consistent, steady, and not subject to the confusing cacophony of multifarious voices. But he is finding affirmation of the goal to be easier than achievement of it. On a number of critical policy issues -- El Salvador, detente, neutron bombs -- the administration already has sent out confusing, contradictory signals requiring disavowal.
It is therefore encouraging to see signs that Mr. Reagan is moving to bring order to the policymaking process (putting Vice-President George Bush in charge of national-security crisis management, for instance). Until the President firmly takes control of that process, he opens US diplomacy to the dangers flowing from the interbureaucratic conflicts, personality clashes, and maneuvering for power that mark every administration, Republic or Democratic.
At the hub of the issue is the National Security Council. The function of that body needs clarification (again). Richard Allen, the President's national security adviser and head of the NSC, has sought to assume a low-key role. This is in keeping with the presidential promise to Secretary of State Haig that he is in charge of US foreign policy and will not be constantly upstaged or undercut by the NSC head, as was William Rogers by Henry Kissinger or Cyrus Vance by Zbigniew Brzezinski.The objective of such reform is sound. So far, signs are that Mr. Haig has a firm hand on the diplomatic controls, as he indeed should have.
Yet the fact remains that the NSC has a vital role to play for the President in coordinating policies among the various departments of government (Defense, State, Commerce, Treasury, and so on) and putting before him all the options on any given foreign policy or security question. The problem arises when the NSC adviser unduly puts himself forward and usurps the powers of the Cabinet officials -- as did Henry Kissinger so conspicuously. In such case, it is up to the chief executive to make sure internecine rivalry does not spill into the open and damage the conduct of foreign policy.
Useful advice comes from Jerrold Schecter, who was press spokesman for Mr. Brzezinski and saw the NSC workings at close range. The functional role of the NSC should not be confused with the way the NSC operated under President Carter's indecisive leadership, wrote Mr. Schecter on our Opinion and Commentary pages yesterday.
"There is a role for the NSC and it is up to the president to define that role," he stated. "In its various permutations we have often sought to blame the failures of the president on the national security assistant and his staff. But the real lesson is that no matter where the national security adviser sits, it is the president who decides. Blaming the NSC or the State Department for a policy failure is acknowledging that the president has failed as commander in chief."
Mr. Reagan apparently is alert to the potential pitfalls and wants to forestall them. Designating the Vice-President to take charge of "crisis management" could be a salutary step in eliminating high-level bureaucratic collisions and reconciling differences in serious national security situation. The question is whether procedures will exist for effectively carrying out such a role. In the past the NSC was responsible for this coordinating process.
It is clear the Reagan administration is still in a shakedown period. The President's pique over the poor preparations for his trip to Canada, for instance, points to slipshod organization. The State Department was blamed for the slippage, yet the NSC, which is within the White House, logically should be responsible for such planning and coordination. The loose-cannon comments by high Cabinet and White House officials about US foreign policy positions -- comments later retracted -- also add to an impression of disorganization and behind-the-scenes fighting for dominance.
That a certain amount of chaos still exists after two months of a new administration is not surprising, especially when the pendulum of foreign policy rhetoric has swung so sharply to the right and when certain new elements within the diplomatic establishment want to keep it there. However, the President --single-voice track -- must see to it that the NSC has a strong staff (which it does not yet have), that its function is well-defined, that his aides know the bounds of proper public utterance, and that he intends to run a coordinated, efficient diplomatc shop.
We expect Mr. Reagan's managerial bent to catch up with the problem. In the meantime it is reassuring that the White House, when confusion has ensued from conflicting statements by high officials, has stepped in to make the record clear. The operation so far has looked ungainly and haphazard. But the basic tenets of foreign policy -- arms control, detente, good relations w ith China -- seem to be intact.