The Carter administration's battered Mideast policy was in new disarray yesterday as the State Department, evidently with White House approval, rebuffed criticism and backbiting from another politically powerful ambassador.
The source of trouble this time was special Mideast Ambassador Robert Strauss, who told reporters during his just completed trip that he had opposed the ideas he was carrying in his briefcase for presentation to the leaders of Israel and Egypt.
In a highly unusual official disclosure of a White House policy meeting, State Department spokesman Thomas Reston volunteered that the instructions for Strauss' mission had been approved unanimously at a meeting of top presidential advisers, including Strauss. Reston said he was speaking "on behalf of the government" in making this statement.
The public statement was generated by official displeasure with Strauss' efforts to blame Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski for the U.S. proposal for a U.N. resolution on the Palestinian issue and to disassociate himself from the proposal.
Reporters with Strauss were informed he was a good soldier who was overruled and got stuck with a policy that was a colossal failure, and that he would have to assert greater control in the future.
Vance is interrupting his vacation at Martha's Vineyard to return to Washington for a meeting with Strauss this morning, the State Department said last night. Brzezinski's office would not say whether the national security adviser, who is to leave Washington on vacation today, would join the meeting.
Strauss arriving at Andrews Air Force Base from the Mideast late yesterday, told waiting reporters that it would be "a false implication" to say there were "any great differences" between himself, Vance and Brzezinski. He denied that he had opposed his mission, but said the ideas he took to the Mideast met with "considerable negativism, concern and questioning" in Egypt and Israel.
Strauss said he expects that top foreign policy advisers, including himself, will present a recommendation to President Carter within 72 hours on the U.S. position in the U.N. debate on Palestine, which is scheduled to begin Thursday.
At that point, Carter will be rolling down the Mississippi River, and Vance, Brzezinski and many other top officials also will be on vacation from the heat and confusion of Washington. The presidential trip seemed an apt metaphor for a policy adrift, far from the national and international realities and imperatives of the moment.
The new signs of disarray could hardly have come at a worse time. The administration already is faced with an ambassadorial rebellion on Mideast policy from its most politically powerful black, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, who resigned under fire because of it. The last thing it needed was pulling and hauling, from a different policy direction, by an ambassador who is the most politically important Jewish official in the administration.
Strauss is even more inexperienced than Young in diplomatic missions, but the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee is far more experienced than Young in national politics.
As indicated by his cautious and ritualistic remarks on landing here late yesterday, Strauss is likely to move quickly to repair the damage from his comments in the Mideast and to coordinate himself, at least publicly, with U.S. policy.
The special Mideast ambassador, who was picked for the job by Carter last spring to the surprise of most of the top U.S. diplomatic team, has made no secret of his lack of enthusiasm for an effort to forge a U.N. compromise on Palestinian rights.
But it appears to have been the full force of Israeli criticism, and the less predictable adverse reaction from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, that led Strauss to back away so visibly from the proposals he was carrying.
With Israeli and Egypt, as well as the diplomat who carried the letter, in disagreement, it seems unlikely that the United States will submit a proposal of its own on Palestine to the forthcoming Security Council session. It has been a long shot from the start that the United States would be able to forge an acceptable compromise on an issue of such irreconcilable character, but some officials believe that the potential price of failure is so high that a good try was required.
Without a U.S. proposal to make a bid for moderate Arab and Third World support, the United States is likely to be left with the unhappy alternative of vetoing a resolution on Palestine that has wide support but is not acceptable to Jerusalem or Washington.
Some Arab nations are talking of taking a vetoed resolution to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Havana next month, and after that to the U.N. General Assembly, where there is no veto.
The United States and Israel could be nearly isolated in all this, as international controversy about the Palestinians builds to a new crescendo. The fact that the United States has pledged to oil-rich Mideast nations to seek a just settlement for the Palestinians is not lost on anybody.
Carter's public admonition to Young to perform with restraint appears to have quieted the noise from that quarter about Mideast policy, at least for now. Young is busy preparing to preside in the Security Council on a question that brought about his demise and to perform his duty as official U.S. advocate of a policy that clearly does not have his philosophical support.
Strauss will be less visible after the next day or two. But he is scheduled to return to the Mideast in early September to preside over Palestinian negotiations with policy instructions that are likely to be drafted, as were his previous ones, by Carter. Vance and Brzezinski. How vigorously he will pursue their ideas, and his own, is a question unanswered by the events of the past several days.