Al Haig is in charge. He knows and likes Europe and centers his world strategy on the Old Continent. He is slightly obsessed with knocking Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi from power and driving the Cubans out of Angola.
The Pentagon and the National Security Council seem to be out of the foreign policy power game as it is unfolding under the Reagan administration. Reagan is more intelligent than is generally supposed in Europe, but is not well-briefed on specific problems, Africa in particular.
These are the impressions of some of West Europe's most senior policymakers, formed during the visits made to Washington by British, French and West German leaders in the two months since the Reagan administration came to office and reported in interviews with Washington Post correspondents in Europe in recent days. The officials agreed to give candid assessments in return for anonymity.
The administration they see taking shape in Washington is one that has their best wishes, in part because of a mutual admiration pact they have with Haig and in part because of Europe's strong hopes for "a clear, certain and consistent U.S. lead in world affairs," in the words of a senior British official.
Those hopes have dimmed somewhat in recent weeks as various administration officials, including Haig, have tripped over each other's and their own statements on El Salvador, the neutron weapon and going to war with the Soviet Union. While it lacks the kind of ideological differences that plagued the Carter administration, this cacophony on policy brings unsettling echoes of the last four years for the allies.
But the officials interviewed in London, Paris and Bonn stress that neither their early, highly optimistic assessments during their Washington meetings nor the more recent sobering second thoughts are meant to be authoritative or even accurate on the details of how foreign policy is being made under Ronald Reagan. They offered a series of highly impressionistic and tentative sketches that contain a number of points of agreement and some of disparity.
Perhaps the clearest impression is that America's major allies in Europe are rooting for Haig to retain overall control of foreign policy-making in Washington. During his tour as commander-in-chief of NATO, Haig assiduously courted European leaders and began a particularly warm relationship with France, which he apparently sees as the key to alliance politics in Europe and the Third World, where America's own reach is limited.
In a combination of words probably not heard in France for at least several decades, an anchorman of one of the government-supervised television networks told his viewers that Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet had been meeting in Washington last month with "a secretary of state who is a francophile."
Moreover, since Inauguration Day, Haig and the Europeans have quickly reached a working alliance in which they have reinforced each other in domestic battles. When Haig ran into challenges in Washington on budget cuts to foreign aid and policy on the neutron warhead, a rash of private and public yelps from Europe gave Haig powerful ammunition for his battles in Washington.
Haig in turn skillfully gave each of the visiting leaders something valuable for their home audiences. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher came home with a communique bearing Haig's name that Chancellor Helmut Schmidt described in a closed Cabinet session as "remarkable." The pledge it contained to move rapidly on the resumption of European nuclear-arms talks was just what Schmidt needed to calm his Social Democratic Party's rebellious left wing.
But officials acknowledge that it is only now, as specific problems begin to demand specific answers that require hard choices, that they will get a true sense of the balance of power, and of intentions, in Washington.
Genscher, Francois-Poncet and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher do not appear to have been overly concerned by the tendency of Reagan and Haig in their discussion to force everything into an East-West framework. Generally, they seem to agree with the Reagan approach of talking tough to the Soviets now and "drifting toward an eventual summit" if its purpose becomes clear and specific.
It is in the Third World that officials from the three European countries are concerned about the Reagan policies they see taking shape. "Haig's blind spot is the same as Kissinger's was, a lack of understanding of the Third World," said a French official who also dealth with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. "Haig also will have to learn on the job," but it is much more dangerous and difficult to do so now.
Some of Haig's listerners during the Washington conversations were startled by his views on Libya's Qaddafi, particularly when the secretary of state suggested dealing with the throny diplomatic problems of Namibia, in southern Africa, by trying it to a Western effort to combat Qaddafi as an agent of an international Soviet-backed terrorist conspiracy.
The Europeans tend to see and deal with Qaddafi as "a lunatic Arab," in one official's words, rather than as a cog in a Soviet terrorist machine, and fear that a Western campaign to undo the Libyan would probably result in strengthening him at home and in the Third World. The French in particular think the best course is to let Qaddafi get further bogged down in Chad and hope he will be discredited at home by that adventure.
Genscher, Francois-Poncet and Britain's Lord Carrington also apparently preached extreme caution in dealing with Angola, which would be a logical target of pressure for an administration that has made Cuba the top item on its own international hit list. A moderate approach to Angola is vital to continuing the five-nation negotiating effort on Namibia and avoiding a confrontation in the United Nations over economic sanctions against South Africa, which controls Namibia, Haig was told repeatedly.
Officials described Haig as an exceptionally good listener, who takes many notes. They came away convinced that he is a bulwark for them against colleagues in the administration who are either indifferent to, or openly hostile toward, European policies, particularly in the Middle East.
Some of the European officials are particularly concerned by what they see as "stridently and inflexibly" pro-Israeli views on the part of Reagan's national security adviser, Richard Allen, but so far they see Allen as being limited to a secondary, behind-the-scenes role.
They are more interested in the foreign policy views of White House counselor Edwin Meese, whom they see as the most likely counterweight to Haig. One french official who refers to Meese as "Control" predicts that if there is a crisis similar to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Meese will be to Reagan what Robert F. Kennedy was to president Kennedy.
Moreover, some of these officials report an impression that Meese is cultivating contacts with former Ford and Nixon administration officials with foreign policy expertise who could form a pool of advisers for him beyond Haig's own immediate circle.
Schmidt and France's President Valery Giscard d'Estaing have a particular concern in keeping good lines of communication to the White House, for they are aware that Allen is better known to their rightist political opponents than to them.
Allen lived in Munich and has close ties to the Christian Democratic Union of Helmut Kohl. In 1978, he acompanied Reagan on a pre-campaign swing of Europe and in Paris where Giscard's officials declined to host Reagan. Allen arranged a dinner with prominent Gaullists and other French conservatives including the leading figures in a new weekly publication, Figaro-Magazine, which last month carried the first interview Reagan granted to any publication as president.
West German officials are concerned that, as one put it, "there is nobody at the Pentagon who has shown the same understanding of Bonn's position" as Haig has at State Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger's surprise announcement that the neutron warhead might be revived as one of the first orders of business is the prime example of what they see as an insensitivity to Schmidt's problem and to the opposition that the scheduled deployment of a new generation of nuclear missiles in Germany has already created.
"Here when a U.S. secretary of defense tries to pass off such remarks as simply being his own opinion," as Weinberger did after Haig publicly challenged him, "nobody believes it," a West German official said. "He already has succeeded in thrusting into the debate a new subject that just might overload the circuit on new nuclear weapons right now."