A supremely confident Alexander M. Haig Jr., in his first press conference as secretary of state, declared yesterday that "international terrorism will take the place of human rights" as the priority concern of American foreign policy in the Reagan administration.
Speaking before reporters and cameras that turned out in large numbers to record his debut in public diplomacy, Haig established a tone and suggested a policy of much greater assertiveness, both for the United States in the world and for the secretary of state in the high councils of the government.
Haig announced that he has selected all but two of the 30 or so top officials who will staff the State Department and predicted that "my nominees," emphasizing the "my," will be approved. He also revealed that he has established a series of interdepartmental policy groups, which are being chaired by the State Department, to review and reformulate U.S. policy throughout the world.
The secretary of state was careful to note that President Reagan and the Cabinet-level members of the National Security Council will have the final word on foreign policy. But the creation, in fact or in process during the first week of the new administration, of seven to 10 such State-led interdepartmental groups, on subjects ranging from Poland to El Salvador, from the Persian Gulf to Africa to Southeast Asia, implies a powerful bureaucratic position for Haig and his aides.
Despite his emphasis on the problem of terrorism, Haig refused to amplify or explain what Reagan meant in announcing to the U.S. hostages returning from Iran that "swift and effective retribution" would follow any future attacks on government employes abroad.
Saying that Reagan's term was "consciously ambiguous," evidently in view of the varied nature of the potential threats, the secretary of state declared that "any terrorist government or terrorist movement . . . knows clearly what we're speaking of."
Haig took issue with the view that a policy of swift retribution implies a downgrading of the priority accorded to the personal safety of future hostages. dBut he did not explain how hostages would be protected from even greater peril under the new policy.
In one of a series of remarks charging the Soviet Union with stirring trouble abroad, Haig went out of his way to accuse the Russians of pursuing a conscious policy of "training, funding and equipping" terrorist activities. At the same time he appealed to the Soviets to do nothing to exacerbate the international situation while the new administration in Washington sorts out its policy toward nuclear arms control and other East-West issues.
The combative stance toward the Soviets was expected, in view of Haig's positions while commanding general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and statements in his six days of confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
More surprising was his broad and ear-catching signal that, in this administration, anti-terrorism would have the priority that protection of human rights had been accorded in the Carter administration, where it was a cherished goal, at least in official rhetoric. In justifying the comparative priority of the two policy goals, which was volunteered by him, Haig said that terrorism "is the ultimate in abuse of human rights."
The secretary of state charged that "an extraordinry role" for human rights concerns in policymaking can produce "distortions" that do a disservice to the objective involved. While saying that he anticipates organizational changes in the handling of human rights policy, Haig followed up with the seemingly paradoxical statement that "there will be no demphasis but a change in priority."
The fate of the State Department's Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, a focal point for controversy during the Carter administration, has not yet been determined, according to informed sources.Concerns over terrorism and counterterorism have already been upgraded by the creation of a more powerful interdepartmental policy group and discussion of the matter in the first two meetings of the full National Security Council.
The immediate focus of these high-level discussion is Iran's holding of the 66, later 52 Americans and the international agreements which ended their captivity. Haig disclosed yesterday that no U.S. military equipment will be provided to Iran, indicating that the Iranian-owned equipment still in American depots may be sold and the proceeds given to Iran as part of the hostage release agreement.
He cast no new light on the likelihood that the Reagan administration will endorse the hostage terms neogtiated by the Carter administration. While emphasizing that the United States will fulfill its obligations under the negotiated terms in accordance with domestic and international law, Haig also said that the analysis of "the most complex series of international agreements I have been exposed to" will take "a great deal of time and effort."
A factor which the United States will weigh, he suggested, is what Iran does now about "additional hostges" held there, apparently referring to the several private Americans in Iranian jails on various charges.
Wearing a bold version of the diplomat's pinstripe, the retired four-star general did not disappoint the unusually large number of journalists and cameras gathered in the State Department conference room to witness his press debut in his new post. His 45 minutes of statements and anwsers, without notes, included moments of sarcasm and rough humor as well as examples of military jargon and fractured syntax.
Haig spoke pointedly, without a smile, of "those all too short" confirmation hearings before the Foreign Relations Committee, which the nominee endured with growing impatience for a week, the longest such examination on record. When denying a news report that he sought to convince Reagan to sigh over a vast wit of foreign policy authority before the two men had even changed out of their formal cutaways on Inauguration Day, Haig interjected with cutting ridicule, "I was discussing this just the other day as the president took his first shower in the White House."
After the cautious, lawyerlike style of Cyrus R. Vance and the Maine politician's homeyness of Edmund S. Muskie, his two immediate predecessors, Haig's rough-and-ready pearlhandled manner was all the more striking in the State Department conference room. For the first time since the era of Henry A. Kissinger, who was Haig's sponsor and mentor in his meteoric rise from colonel to four-star general in the Nixon administration, the secretary of state seemed likely to be a media star as well as a policy powerhouse.
Haig's answers to questions covered a wide range of subjects. Among other things, he said:
The United States cannot contemplate new negotiations on strategic nuclear armaments or ratification of previous arms control agreements without considering Soviet activities throughout the world as a factor. Russian "risk-taking" through Cuban proxies in Latin America and Africa is of utmost concern, he said. However, Haig hinted at consideration of a summit meeting between Reagan and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev after clarification of issues between the two capitals.
"There has been somewhat of a decline" in recent weeks in Soviet military activity near the borders of Poland, but the Russian forces still could act "very, very quickly" if military intervention were ordered by the Kremlin. aThough the United States is pondering what further steps to take to aid Poland, economic assistance is "not the answer" in the absence of basic internal reforms.
Libyan military activities in Chad represent "a grave turn of events" which is being carefully watched by the United States.
The Reagan administration remains committed to the Arab-Israeli peace process in the Middle East but does not wish to "inject" any sense of urgency" into the situation, which now seems to be marking time until the Israeli elections.
There was "no deal" between Washington and Seoul involved in the decision by South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan to commute the death sentence of that country's most prominent political opponent, Kim Dae Jung, on the eve of the Korean leader's official visit here. But the United States is "very pleased" by the commutation.
U.S. military aid to the hardpressing government of El Salvador is not likely to be cut and may be increased.
Haig dismissed what he called "dope stories" that he was mired in bureaucratic conflict with White House aides over the procedures for foreign policymaking.
He said he had been explicitly assured by Reagan before taking the job that "I would be his chief administrator" of foreign affairs, a function that Haig has also referred to as the foreign policy "vicar." He advised reporters, in seeking to understand that term, to examine the report by Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) two decades ago on U.S. foreign policy. s
Jackson's conclusion, as stated then, was that "in our system there can be no satisfactory substitute for a secretary of state willing and able to exercise his leadership across the full range of national security matters . . . [He] must bear the chief responsibility for bringing new policy initiatives to the president's desk and for overseeing and coordinating our manifold foreign policy activities on the president's bahalf."