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Foreign policy: trying to keep talk in line with action

President Reagan came to office promising a foreign policy of strength and consistency. But the new administration's first 100 days have revealed more rhetoric than strength, more zigs and zags than consistency.

The trends are far from irreversible, but it is not a good sign when nearly everyone in Washington speculates that Secretary of State Alexander Haig may not hold his job beyond June.

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Part of the problem appears to have been the approach taken by General Haig himself. The secretary demanded that his primacy in foreign policy be set out clearly and neatly much as a military chart lays down a chain of command. This rankled at the White House. He pushed too hard and too fast, and as a result, he got less than he might have through a low-key aproach. His earlier reputation as a savvy bureaucratic infighter took a beating at home that could damage his effectiveness abroad.

Then came the loss of crisis management authority to Vice-President George Bush and the moment, following the assassination attempt against the President, when Haig stood before the television cameras and erroneously placed himself higher than he should have been in the line of succession.

Nearly trembling with emotion, he asserted that he was in control. He looked as though he was going out of control.

President Reagan promised strength vis-a-vis the Russians. But his recent decision to lift the partial grain embargo against the Soviets sent the opposite message. To some of America's friends in Western Europe, and to the Soviets themselves perhaps, the lifting of the embargo conveyed the impression that the administration places domestic farm politics ahead of foreign policy considerations. President Carter imposed the embargo because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Soviet troops are today as deeply entrenched in Afghanistan as they ever were.

One criticism from some foreign policy experts was that the administration should have sought something in return for dropping the embargo. It appeared to be another defeat for Secretary Haig, who had earlier argued for maintaining the embargo.

When it came to the proposed US sale of radar planes to Saudi Arabia, Haig appeared to have lost another battle, not so much over the sale of the planes as over the timing of that action. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger pushed for quick action on the sale. Haig urged a more cautious approach. The quick action advocates won out in the bureaucratic infighting over the issue, but they could lose the battle to win approval for sale on Capitol Hill.

Overseas, the administration has discovered that its stress on countering the Soviet Union through a defense buildup has not always meshed with the preoccupations of foreign states.

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* The Middle East: The Arabs have urged the administration to place greater stress on helping to resolve the Palestinian problem. This, they say, is the primary threat to the region's stability.

* the African subcontinent: Some black African leaders have warned that they consider South Africa a greater menace than the Soviets. They have objected to what they perceve to be an administration "tilt" in favor of South Africa.

* In West Europe: The allies have warned that the military approaches stressed early in the Reagan administration would be insufficient to solve most of the world's problems. The West Europeans have been particularly insistent that the Americans continue to seek US-Soviet nuclear arms control agreements.

* In Latin America: Friends and allies have warned that there is more to the el Salvador conflict than the East-West dimension. They have stressed that economic and social reforms are utterly vital in such situations.

In all of these regions, the administration seems to have gotten the message, at least at the level of rhetoric. It has molified its rhetoric, placing more stress on a balanced approach to world problems that would include a major emphasis on economic reform, and local and regional concerns. It has been forced to start talking more about well-established ways of dealing with the Soviets, through trade and arms control negotiations, for example.

It is evident that in some cases, the administration had let its rhetoric get ahead of its thinking. After hinting that it would strengthen ties with Taiwan, for example, the administration thought it through and opted more for continuity with Carter administration policy toward Peking than for change.

One of the problems that persist for the administration, however, is that of finding ways of saying what it is form rather than stressing only what it is against.

In summary: the administration has in its first 100 days set a new tone and direction in foreign policy, partly through tough rhetoric and partly through proposals for increased defense spending and more vigorous use of arms sales. But when it comes to concrete actions overseas, there has been as much continuity as there has been change. Score card so far: no notable achievements , no notable failures.

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