The return of Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. to the United States next June, after 4 1/2 years here as the supreme allied commander in Europe, will not have the same effect on the American political scene as did the 1952 homecoming of his famous predecessor in the post, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But, if it did, Haig probably would not mind. He is the most politically oriented, if not politically ambitious, American military man to hold the allied command in the last 26 years -- even more so than Eisenhower, who had the Republican presidential nomination handed to him on a platter as reward for constantly disavowing any interest in the job.
Since Haig, fresh from a stint as chief of staff in the Nixon White House, arrived here four years ago, Europeans scarcely have mentioned his name to an American without asking, "Do you think he wants to be president?" A very senior British officer, who has had many professional dealings with Haig during his tenure here and who admires him as a military man, once remarked to me: "You know, when I talk to Al Haig just conversationally, I always get the feeling that in everything he says he is thinking about someplace else -- the White House."
Haig has been a "high-profile" commander -- too much so for the comfort of some European governments. The French formally rapped him across the knuckles for his comments on Eurocommunism a couple of years ago and, more recently, the Germans criticized him for seeming to use the big annual NATO military maneuvers as something of a personal political platform. Fortunately for him, he has been an effective commander despite the political overtones that exude from almost everything that he says or does.
There was plenty of politicking in Haig's press conference here last month. It was billed in advance as a New Year's look at the East-West military picture, then ended up with his surprise announcement that he had sent his resignation to President Carter only hours before. This was a little startling, for protocol would have called for the general to allow the White House and NATO headquarters in Brussels to make such an announcement. In that case, however, the White House would have dictated the timing; Haig wouldn't have received the same pressconference news treatment.
The rest of his 50-minute press conference was a review of the Soviet military buildup. Haig appealed to NATO governments not to limit their view of the Russian threat to Europe, but to think globally and to relate events in Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Asia to the overall attitude that the western world should take towards its chief adversary. Haig denounced "allowing justice to reside in the hands of those who are willing to go to war."
He made a couple of references to "my friend, Dr. Henry Kissinger" and, all in all, created the impression of a man who is looking forward to getting out of uniform and trying his rhetoric and style on Republican audiences back home.
Most interesting was the way in which Haig deliberately ducked three different questions inviting him to lend support to the new strategic arms limitation treaty that the Carter administration is trying to finalize with the Soviet Union. Haig certainly knows enough about the terms of the agreement to make a judgment, but he did not. He said he would wait until the agreement is completed before making "a value assessment" of its effect on NATO's nuclear modernization. He also noted that, while he personally had not expressed reservations about various aspects of the agreement, he had called the administration's attention to reservations that have been expressed by the NATO allies.
What, then, is Haig's political outlook? Clearly, he has no political base in the United States. But, on the other hand, it is not difficult to see him becoming a drawing card at Republican Party dinners and rallies in the second half of 1979. And it is not very hard to see him attracting a political following, given the paucity of vigorous young faces in Republican ranks.
None of this is likely to keep the Carter White House awake at night, but there is one point on which Haig could pose a real problem for the administration. That, of course, is the SALT agreement. Haig is in a position to go with the opposition when SALT reaches the Senate. If he does, the political effect could be considerable. One thing is certain: As an old soldier, Gen. Haig does not intend to fade away.