Alexander Haig has been secretary of state since Jan. 21 -- exactly three months. During that time he has attracted more attention, become the center of more controversy, and found himself involved with more trouble on Capitol Hill than have all his colleagues in the new Reagan Cabinet put together.
In part, his prominence and his troubles have been of his own making. He made headlines by talking back to questioners during his confirmation hearing in the Senate. He made more headlines by moving on inauguration day itself to stake out a larger piece of bureaucratic turf than the White House was willing to grant. His overreach in that affair got Vice-President Bush tapped as "crisis manager" after Mr. Haig had made it plain that he wanted and expected that position for himself.
He was less than tactful in talking to the French about selling grain to the Soviet Union without first checking out the subject with the secretary of agriculture. He led in building up the El Salvador story to the point where it became an embarrassment to the administration. The matter, which dominated the news for the first half of February and brought an avalanche of disapproving mail to the White House, has since been pushed to the back burner. It is treated at the State Department currently as unmentionable.
Of recent date he called Syrian shelling of a Lebanese Phalangist military position at Zahle a "brutality" without justification under acceptable international standards. The remark pleased Israel but deeply offended the Arabs who see no reason why the Syrians should not defend their own supply line against Lebanese irregulars who get their weapons from Israel and are in fact threatening to cut off the Syrian troops in Lebanon from their home base.
That remark appeared to have been made without first studying the ground. It was undiplomatic to make it in jordan, an Arab country, and at a moment when he was trying to persuade all the Arabs to team up with the United States in an anti-Soviet coalition.
In other words Mr. Haig seems to have a short fuse, to speak hastily, to lose his temper, and, at times, to be less than tactfully diplomatic.
This has played into the hands of his critics and opponents both inside the White House staff and on Capitol Hill. The right wing of the Republican Party, particularly the rightest of the right, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, has held up confirmation of several of Mr. Haig's most important assistants. The pressure is on at the White House to get rid of Mr. Haig and replace with someone more in tune with the attitudes of the ideologues of the right. There seems to be some question whether he can survive the pressure on the president.
Which is a pity, because while Mr. Haig seems to lack the tactfulness usually associated with diplomacy he is experienced in world affairs and approaches the problems of foreign policy with the objective of a professional diplomat. I would add that if the Reagan administration is to be reasonably successful in foreign policy it must have at the State Department a pragmatist, not an ideologue.
If the ideologues could have their way they would have reversed the reopening of US relations with mainland China. That policy, initiated by Richard Nixon and consummated by Jimmy Carter, has been worth at least a million soldiers to the US in the world power balance. To go back to a pro-Taiwan association could push mainland China back toward a Soviet alignment. I can think of nothing more damaging to the world position of the United States, or more satisfactory to Moscow.
The same applies to most other parts of the world. The ideologues of the Republican right want to reverse US attitudes toward Africa. They would like to bolster the white regime in South Africa. If such a policy were adopted the US would be in trouble with the new black countries of central and northern Africa which are now more important to the American economy than is South Africa. Nigeria provides the second most important source of imported oil and has the great advantage for Washington of being on the Atlantic side of Africa and well away from the dangers of the Gulf area. If oil from the Gulf were cut off by another Arab-Israeli war, the United States could get by with Nigerian oil.
In all the great issues of foreign policy Mr. Haig has taken the pragmatic as opposed to the ideological position. He is mature and informed in foreign affairs. He knows such elementary things as the fact that mainland China has 4. 5 million men in its armed forces against a third of a million for Taiwan. Which is more important to have on one's side?
If Mr. Haig were to be replaced by an ideologue at the State De partment, the Soviets would be the first to cheer.