Secretary of State Alexander Haig fell off the high wire first. Next came the turn of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
Weinberger, a pleasant and highly articulate lawyer with close ties to the Reagan inner circle, thrust himself forward just after the attempted assassination of the president. On a trip to Europe in the first part of April and thereafter, he asserted an amalgam of views dear to himself and second-level Pentagon interests. But these have run athwart established administration strategy in the Middle East and Europe.
In the Middle East, the administration has favored support for "friends and allies" to build a "strategic consensus" against Soviet penetration. The basic idea was that Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan would all be strengthened in ways that promoted the common defense and the advancement of the Camp David process for bringing peace to the area.
But Weinberger led a Pentagon charge to win Saudi confidence by a shower of quick weapons sales. Among other things, he pushed for selling to the Saudis -- right away -- equipment to enhance the F15 fighter jets they purchased three years ago, and five planes mounted with the sophisticated advance-warning system known as AWACS.
That proposal disturbed the Israelis, who, being in the midst of an electoral campaign, made their misgivings known at the top of their lungs. It upstaged Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who thinks of himself, rightly, as the leading figure in the area, and who has now put in for an Egyptian AWACS. It failed to commit the Saudis to more moderate behavior toward either the Egyptians or Israelis. It thus worked against the Camp David Accords.
In Europe, the administration has favored working with "friends and allies" to modernize the NATO pitted against Soviet armies. The European allies -- especially Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany -- have demanded a simultaneous effort to engage the Russians in negotiations for a limitation on theater nuclear weapons. The administration has, in principle, agreed to the double track. But theater nuclear negotiations cannot progress very far without a move on the larger subject of strategic weapons. That brings into play the unratified SALT II treaty, and the whole concept of easing tension, or detente, with the Russians.
Weinberger has struck out repeatedly against the very idea of detente. In a recent speech in Bonn, for example, he said: "If the movement from cold war to detente is progress, then let me say we cannot afford much more progress."
More specifically, Weinberger has asserted that arms control negotiations should depend on Russian withdrawl of troops in and around Poland -- a highly unlikely contingency that the allies do not feel should be a precondition for talks. He has also embraced the famous "deep cut" tactic of killing arms control talks by insisting on reductions the Russians would not accept. Thus, at a breakfast last week, he said that negotiations on theater nuclear forces would be feasible only if they led to a "much lower level of armaments in Europe."
At present, Weinberger is still publicly unscathed. A decision on the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia that was expected to be taken by the White House last Thursday was postponed.
But it is hard to see how Weinberger can prevail on AWACS. His proposal for an immediate deal is not only opposed by Israelis and Egyptians and elements in the State and Defense departments. The president's two mainstays in the Senate -- Majority Leader Howard Baker and Best Friend Paul Laxalt -- have both warned there would be trouble pushing a quick AWACS sale through Congress. Moreover, delay of the sale would make possible much better arrangements both in the Mideast and in Congress.
Neither is it easy to see how Weinberger can prevail in Europe. Schmidt and other allied leaders are dug in hard against him. Unless Poland explodes, they will insist on negotiations with the Russians as a minimum price for modernization of NATO nuclear weapons. Modernization would be worth nothing if, in the process, the alliance fell apart.
The end result is a policy impasse in the national security area. Major decisions impend. This country has to block out detailed positions on arms control and on further steps in the Middle East. It has to make hard choices regarding the basing of the new MX missile, the size of the Navy and the nature of a new bomber. But there is not now in place an approved mechanism for making such decisions. In effect, the Reagan administration, after two false starts is beginning all over again in national security.