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This is the US administration that is supposed to put it all together. Yet in the field of diplomacy the opposite impression is fast gaining ground. The reason? Many of the President's appointments for high posts at the State Department have not yet received the "consent" of the Congress called for constitutionally. Hence, in what can only be termed an absurd situation, key assistant secretaries of state have been shaping policy and running around overseas without senatorial imprimatur. Some lag has always occurred between the time a president takes office and his diplomatic appointments are approved, but the situation now appears to be setting some sort of record for inaction and confusion. The harm this does the US image abroad is obvious.

The blame can be laid largely at the door of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, specifically, Sen. Jesse Helms. Some other reasons are cited, to be sure, such as the new financial disclosure laws and more complicated FBI security checks required these days. But it is no secret in Washington that Mr. Helms, Republican from North Carolina, has been holding up the nominations. He seems determined to remake foreign policy in an ultraconserative mold and to stymie appointments not to his liking.

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What, the question should be asked, are the other Republican members of the Senate committee doing? Should not Senator Percy, the chairman, be getting the confirmation process under way and over? Now the Senate has recessed for the Easter holidays, delaying things even longer. Such a slipshod operation diminishes the respect which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has traditionally enjoyed. If the committee's Republicans do not get their act together, as they say, they should not be surprised if other voices in the Senate begin to take over a prominent role in foreign policy.

There is in fact no reason why the President's main appointments should be challenged. Secretary of State Haig has made excellent choices that show confidence in the department's career officers, and these assistant secretaries-designate already are doing their jobs: Lawrence Eagleburger, State's man for Europe; Nicholas Veliotes, in charge of Middle East affairs; Chester Crocker, currently on tour of African countries; Thomas Enders, Latin America affairs. They are all officers of competence and experience. By tradition, moreover, the US president is deemed to have the right to select those whom he wants to serve him -- short of an egregious black mark in someone's record.

Not only are Mr. Helm's delaying tactics raising eyebrows abroad. They reportedly are beginning to create an unhealthy atmosphere at the State Department itself. When it is perceived (however erroneously) that reactionary views are in the ascendant, this tends to intimidate honest debate and dissent. It would be sad indeed if the important work of analyzing foreign policy and developing fresh ideas were to be weakened because diplomats held back out of fear of jeopardizing their careers. We doubt the President would wish to encourage such a stifling atmosphere. But keeping a spirit of vigor and openness in the foreign policy establishment has to be worked at or it could be lost.

It also has not gone unnoticed overseas that the Reagan administration so far has appointed only six out of 43 vacant ambassadorial positions -- a poorer record than the previous administration after three months time. Some of these are key posts, such as Moscow and Bonn. We are not unmindful of the full plate of work facing the President as he recuperates. But he and his chief advisers surely will want to give high priority to bringing organizational order to foreign policy and eliminating the present artificial state of affairs.

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