In the end the AWACS drama resembled more a political horserace than a serious foreign policy decision. But there is little question President Reagan has enhanced his prestige as a skilled political persuader. The question now is how and whether he will use this narrow congressional victory - and the heightened presidential authority it represents - to get on with the central issues of foreign policy. If the President applies as much energy, toughness, and single-mind-edness to the other even more urgent problems of diplomacy as he has to the AWACS question, there is no end to what he might accomplish in fostering a more peaceful and stable world.
If it is honest with itself, the White House should realize that many nations still await a coherent, well-managed US foreign policy. The lack of steadiness and coherence in American diplomacy was precisely what Mr. Reagan promised to eliminate when he came into office. Yet nine months later his administration is beginning to invite the same kind of criticism that dogged its predecessor. Frankly, given the President's newness to the world of diplomacy it may be fortunate that the administration has gotten off to a relatively slow start, simply dealing in an ad hoc way with issues as they arise. Terrible mistakes can be made by precipitate action. But diplomatic problems cannot wait indefinitely and they now must be faced up to.
High on the agenda is achievement of a peace settlement in the Middle East. The AWACS controversy unfortunately deflected attention from the core problems in the region. The Reagan administration, concerned primarily about Soviet expansionism, has focused on building up a ''strategic consensus'' embracing Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. The AWACS deal (promised first by President Carter) was neatly fitted into that policy. Yet the Arab states have shown themselves less concerned about the Russians than about Israeli expansionism at the expense of the Palestinians.
We never thought the AWACS sale was essential militarily. But now that the President has stood up so forcefully for the Saudis, he should have new leverage in bringing the moderate Arabs to the peace table. After the AWACS vote it should be clear to the Arab world that the United States is prepared to pursue an even-handed policy in the Middle East, even if this means displeasing Israel. It should thus be easier for Saudi Arabia to involve itself in Lebanon peacemaking and in the search for a solution of the Palestinian question.
Europe is another area warranting attention. It would be inaccurate to blame the Reagan administration for the rise of pacifist, antinuclear sentiment in Europe. But there is little doubt that strains have grown within the Atlantic alliance as a result of the way the US has handled such controversial issues as the neutron bomb, theater nuclear weapons, and arms control negotiations. Insensitivity to West European perceptions - or perhaps failure to understand them - has not only fanned the antinuclear mood and created problems for allied leaders but enabled the Soviet Union to take the high ground.
That US relations with Western Europe should be in disarray is dismaying. Certainly a cornerstone of peace lies in the close bonds that have developed among the industrialized Western nations. Preserving and strengthening these bonds ought to be the goal of every administration.
We would not exaggerate the problem. There is no evidence that the NATO collective security system is jeopardized; it in fact remains vigorous and strong.
But President Reagan needs critically to ease the tensions now straining relations. An early visit to Western Europe to meet with allied leaders and to speak to popular audiences could be a useful move in this direction. Mr. Reagan's sincerity and ability to persuade - as well as listen - would be prime assets on such a trip. It would also help matters if the US were seen preparing enthusiastically rather than grudgingly for arms control talks.
Some of the President's diplomatic problems are managerial. Here again, even while criticizing the Carter foreign policy establishment for failing to speak with one voice and for bureaucratic infighting, the Reagan administration now risks the same charges.
The State and Defense Departments seem to be competing for power and media attention, often making conflicting pronouncements. And the President needs experienced foreign policy advisers in his White House entourage. There clearly is room for a better in-house system of policymaking and communication.
This is not to forget some constructive initiatives underway, such as the efforts to get a settlement in Namibia, or some positive turns of policy, such as the improvement of ties with Peking.
It is simply to say that the Reagan administration cannot rest on its laurels because it barely avoided a politically and diplomatically humiliating defeat on the AWACS planes.
The President has fought and won his first pitched foreign policy battle - but on a matter of secondary importance. The real challenges lie ahead.