Watching Gen. Alexander Haig work over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put me in mind of another less controversial but no less distinguished American military man: Marine Corps Gen. David Shoup, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor on the carnage of the coral reefs of Tarawa in World War II.

When he later reached the top job of commandant in 1960, he confronted a delicate disciplinary problem. With no wars to fight, the macho vogue among Marine officers at the time was to carry short batons, known as "swagger sticks." Shoup disapproved. But it was not his style to be heavy about it. So he issued a deft (and instantly effective) directive on "swagger sticks."

Carry them, he told his officers in effect, if you feel the need.

Perhaps the single most striking impression that Alexander Haig made in his handling of the senators, as well as the big issues of American foreign policy, was that of a fellow who feels that sort of need.

Stary with the senators. As a general with a supposedly acute "stategic sense," he must have known he held the high ground. The committee members had read the election returns. There was not much stomach, even among the Democrats, for denying Ronald Reagan his choice for secretary of state, or for "re-hashing" Watergate or Vietnam.

So why come on as, alternately, tough and touchy, patronizing and challenging, defensive and offensive? Why cannonade the committee with platitudes ("There are things that we Americans must be willing to fight for")? Why offer ringing pronouncements on the need for "consistency, reliability, balance" in U.S. foreign policy in a manner suggesting he was talking to slow-witted uninitiates?

Why, for that matter, gratuittously poke fun at Sen. Claiborne Pell by suggesting, when the committee's ranking Democrat was fumbling with a question, that his questions were being written for him by an aide?

Haig's supporters would say that he was offended by the implications of the questioning on Watergate and Vietnam. But surely if his supposedly superior performance as NATO commander was a fit part of the record, so was his work at the White House for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

In any case, even his weakest flank, Watergate, was protected (irony of ironies) by the man Haig himself had so assiduously protected in the White House. Richard Nixon's claim of executive preivlege was alomost a sure shield against whatever might be in the tapes the Democrats were seeking.

One result is a lingering question mark. It may not be fair, but there would be less to question if Haig, when pressed for a "value judgment" on Watergate, had not kept refusing to provide a "mea culpa" that nobody was asking for -- while insisting there had been "abuses on both sides."

Even his most vigorous inquisitors would have subsided, I suspect, if he had been ready even to approximate the judgment rendered by the last 10 Republican die-hards on the House Judiciary Committee. Their final minority report on impeachment said Nixon had "substantially confessed to the crime of obstructing justice" and firmly rejected the notion that he had been "hounded from office."

Another result is likely to be a needless burden on Haig's future relations with Congress. As secretary of state, there will be times when Haig will need congressional sympathy and support. Sound strategy might have taken into account the fact that politicians, while they may be short be Al Haig's standards on geoppoliltical acuity, have long memories.

That Haig approached his confirmation hearings as a general going into battle is perhaps understandable given the circumstances. The interesting question is what this tells us about the way he will approach the conduct of foreign policy.

The Haig hard line on policy issues in the hearings was predictable. Even Soviet weaknesses he saw as menacing. Marxist-Leninism, as a system, is a "profound historic failure," he declared; the Soviet economy is a "disaster"; Soviet agriculture is a "basket case."

"But history has examples of totalitarian states turning to external diversion." So there is no comfort even in Soviet failures -- and no safety for the United States without a substantial increase in military capability across the board.

It's an arguable proposition, but one that can't be translated overnight into substantive increases in military power. New weapons from "womb to boom" (as Haig put it) take five years or more. In the meantime, having elaborated alarmingly on current American weakness and Soviet strength, Haig would count on mere spending decisions -- on declarations of intent -- to give authority to the new hard line.

The question then will be how the Russians perceive it: as Big Stick or merely Swagger Stick diplomacy.