Senior State Department officials yesterday expressed puzzlement and concern at the French rejection of a planned meeting by U.S. and European allies to coordinate their response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The officials, speaking to reporters in a rejoinder to a French announcement and blasts at Washington on Friday, professed to be "puzzled" by what they called "the rapid shifts" in Paris' positions since the Soviet military action began Dec. 27.
The Stae Department officials also expressed concern that the new French statements may convey the impression of a developing split within the Atlantic alliance about Afghanistan.
An official said that despite the French stand, the U.S. impression is that "the allies understand" that Western interests as a whole, not just those of the United States, are involved in the situation in Southwest Asia. He added the belief that "the allies understand" a unified western response to be necessary to deter the Soviet Union.
The official would not clarify whether "the allies" in this case includes the French.
The lastest instance of diplomatic backbiting between Washington and Paris arose from a meeting of Western allies that was to have taken place in Bonn about Feb. 20. U.S. officials said yesterday that the meeting was the idea of the Germans, and that the European nations set the date and made the arrangements.
The announcement from Paris that France will not attend apparently was triggered by news stories from Washington saying that a joint meeting involving the French had been scheduled in Bonn. U.S. officials said they had every reason to believe this was so at the time of these news accounts, though they said that a formal announcement of the joint session had not been expected until later.
American officials talked to the Germans extensively in setting up the meeting, according to the sources here, and obtained the clear impression that the French were willing to participate. No direct talks about the matter between Washington and Paris were held, State Department officials said.
The officials also responded to complaints from Paris that the United States pressed for sanctions against Iran and then failed to inform the allies before announcing last Thursday that the sanctions are being held in abeyance. This is factually correct, according to the State Department sources, but in their view it conveys a misleading impression.
The European allies were well aware that Washington had ceased weeks ago to push through diplomatic channels for the imposition of the Iranian sanctions, the sources said.
It could not have been a surprise to the French that Washington formally announced the obvious -- that sanctions had been shelved for the time being -- in the view of officials here. Nonetheless, some of the U.S. officials conceded it would have been better if the allies had been notified prior to Thursday's announcement.
Behind the outbreak of snipping and hard feelings are two distinct but related problems, in the view of diplomatic observers:
First, an unusually and unaccountably volatile situation in French diplomacy, as seen from Washington. The French initially took a mild view of the Afghanistan invasion, then reversed field and took a much tougher stand. French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing signed a relatively tough joint statement against the Soviet invasion last Tuesday with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, then quickly began to soften that statement through background briefings for domestic French consumption.
French policy is usually independent but clearly calculated and cohesively expressed, in the U.S. perception. That has not been the impression here in recent weeks.
Second, growing European irritation as Washington has taken dramatic new stands, often involving major shifts, without advance consultation with its allies. For example, President Carter's decision to call for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, according to diplomatic sources, was announced without prior consultation just after Giscard had positioned himself in public in favor of the Olympics -- and after Giscard had asked privately, without clear response, for an indication of Washington's position.
No consultations were held with the allies -- or the nations in the immediately affected area -- before Carter's announcement of a new Persian Gulf military commitment in the State of the Union address Jan. 23. A senior statesman who recently visited Paris, Bonn and London reported a strong feeling at the top in all three capitals that Washington's advance "consultation" about important matters has been perfunctory, at best.
According to State Department officials, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance is nearly certain to go ahead with bilateral U.S.-German talks on a visit to Bonn Feb. 20.But it is uncertain where or whether he will travel beyond Germany.