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The White House: getting a grasp on foreign policy

TRAGEDY, according to the Greeks, was the result of some internal failing. So it is with the scandal now rocking the Reagan administration. It has been developing for six years, yet has only come to public knowledge and to the President's discomfort after a slowly building progression of errors. Ronald Reagan came to office to be a domestic President. Foreign policy has been important to him largely as an extension of domestic concerns, an aspect of rebuilding domestic confidence in the United States. For most of his presidency, Mr. Reagan's foreign policy could be summarized in seven words: increase defense, stand tall, confound the Soviets. The rest has essentially been a distraction from the domestic agenda.

The logical product of Reagan's priorities was for him to put little effort into the means for making foreign policy. Concerned to have neither a Henry Kissinger nor a Zbigniew Brzezinski as national-security adviser, Reagan downgraded the role and abilities of the National Security Council staff. He abandoned a system followed by his three immediate predecessors, whereby top foreign policy officials met regularly, in his absence, to thrash out the issues for presidential decision.

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Reagan also spent little time on foreign policy, and was notoriously uninformed even of facts. Many Americans, weary of Vietnam, Watergate, and the hyperinflation of the Carter years, were prepared to join Reagan in a conspiracy of ignorance.

It should not be surprising that the current crisis comes from an effort by Reagan to please what he believes the US public wants. We want hostages in Lebanon to come home. But we also do not want to pay ransom for them. The average American still feels deeply wounded by the Iranian hostage crisis and is bewildered by Reagan's trafficking with the ayatollahs. His recent and accurate assertions that the US has a vital interest in Iran's future was the first that the American people had heard on the subject from a President who had been prepared to indulge a national hatred.

It is also not surprising that the National Security Council staff has been caught in a bizarre series of activities that have included the improper if not illegal sending of laundered money to the so-called contras in Nicaragua. The NSC staff had earlier orchestrated a ``disinformation'' campaign against Libya, and had been accused of gun-running to the contras during the time of congressional prohibition on such aid.

Yet the NSC staff was a natural instrument precisely because Reagan wanted to achieve goals that had strong domestic resonance - ``getting'' Qaddafi as the symbol if not the source of terrorism, keeping communism out of Central America while not losing American lives, and resolving the hostage dilemma. In each case, secrecy was important. And since the US people were divided on broad goals or, in face of dilemmas, could not be totally appeased, there could be no consensus on policy within the administration.

The method of subordinating foreign policy to domestic political objectives accelerated after the advent of Donald Regan as White House chief of staff. A man whose strength lie in areas other than foreign policy, he still became the czar under a President with little taste or aptitude for the rigors imposed by the issues.

An NSC staff with high-quality personnel, well managed, and ably led could be expected to sidetrack bad proposals, providing internal checks and balances. Bizarre ideas were proposed in earlier administrations, but almost invariably they were rejected. Arrogance, endemic to every White House, would be stopped short of folly. Thus what has happened now does not reflect an NSC operation that is too strong, but one that is too weak.

The current crisis comes at a time when the slumbering giant of American public attitudes seems to be reawakening. We have had our respite from the pains of the 1970s and have completed our national celebration of America's promise. Economic difficulty, strongly reflected in recent election results, has reminded us of the need for hard work and leadership that challenges, not flatters.

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We also seem to be waking up from a time of assuming that the US does stand tall in the world - even against contrary evidence - to demanding, again, that we have a functioning foreign policy to meet US interests. In a phrase, it is ``America is back,'' demanding from its author a leadership based on truth and honest debate about America's problems, at home and abroad.

In the weeks ahead, there will be clamor to reform the making of US foreign policy, to swing the balance of power to the Congress, to play down the National Security Council at the White House in favor of primacy for the State Department - a primacy it cannot exercise in the many areas beyond its ken. These will all be overreactions, going too far beyond the needed symbolism in the firings and the presidential commission. The problem is not with the system's theory, but with its current practice.

The ingredients of reform are simple. The NSC staff must be talented and professional, and dedicated to working with the rest of the bureaucracy instead of against it. The role of White House domestic politicians must be kept in check. The rules of relations with Congress must be respected.

Above all, the President of the United States must finally show understanding of foreign policy issues in their own right, not just as an extension of domestic political needs. And he must finally exercise the leadership and oversight within his administration that America's future demands.

Robert E. Hunter is director of European Studies at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies. During the Carter administration he served on the staff of the National Security Council.

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