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Right on, Britannia

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THE British have a reputation for ``muddling through'' their foreign policy crises. What this means is that they do not apply the directness of the Americans to a crisis, but cloak it with ambiguity that affords them more room for maneuver. This carefully calculated image of disheveled charm in their diplomacy often disguises brilliance, and a ruthless pursuit of national interest.

The present British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, is a splendid personification of this image. For the most part he is a man of delicious British understatement, rarely rattled, rarely strident.

Asked by a reporter, for example, why Iran embarks on a series of ventures judged insane by the outside world, he replies: ``I think this underlines that various agencies in their government are taking actions not conducive to projecting a united front.'' Stripped of understatement, what that means is that the Iranians can't get their act together.

But despite the graciousness, he has a mind like a trap, and a comprehensive view of the world, and so a number of journalists were quick to breakfast with him in New York this week to check out his mood.

It is upbeat about the principal topic on the foreign policy agenda - the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West. It is more glum about immediate events in the Gulf, where a British ship was attacked by the Iranians this week.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one of the first Western leaders to meet the new Soviet general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, and she quickly decided that he was a man with whom she could do business.

The British now believe that the deal the United States and the USSR have just cut on reducing intermediate nuclear weapons justifies that judgment.

That does not mean they like the Soviet system, or are without distrust of it. Indeed, Sir Geoffrey has three ``laws'' for dealing with the Soviets:

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