Alexander M. Haig Jr's first overseas trip, an eight-day, nine-nation tour of the Middle East and western Europe, ended in Bonn yesterday, in neither triumph nor disaster.
From all appearances, the secretary of state managed a predictable but solid start in the Middle East on establishing the personal and political relationships essential to policy in that important area. But there were also just enough gaffes to keep alive the controversy that had dogged him in recent weeks.
Like so much of U.S. foreign policy, the trip began with a simple concept and ballooned to more complex, even exhausting proportions.
Originally the journey was designed to demonstrate U.S. interest in the Middle East peace process during the diplomatic hiatus between the inauguration of President Reagan and the June 30 Israeli national elections, which are expected to define that country's future leadership. One part of the aim was to head off demands for more dramatic American activity, or a trip to Washington by Israel's embattled prime minister, Menachem Begin.
Once on the drawing board, the trip also was seen as a chance for Haig to try out his concept of a loose anti-Soviet "strategic consensus" embracing the diverse and often warring group of states that are America's main diplomatic and military partners in the region: Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Onto this core of one-day visits to those four countries was grafted a day in Spain to make up for a harmful remark by Haig in late February that an attempted military coup in Madrid was an "internal matter." Also added was a British stopover on the way home for rest, fuel and a meeting requested by Foreign Secretary Lord Peter Carrington, who considers himself a Middle East expert and policy coordinator.
When the West Germans heard Haig was stopping in London, they asked that the secretary of state make a visit to Bonn, giving them equal status. Haig agreed, but then could not avoid an equal excursion to Paris, especially since French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing is in a stiff battle for reelection, and a flyover would be interpreted as a U.S. snub.
The final dish in this progressive supper was pasta, added by request of an Italian government which feels that it has often been unfairly excluded from the U.S.-British-French-German gentleman's club. Haig made room for a three-hour airport stopover in Rome last Wednesday to meet Foreign Minister Emilio Columbo.
So what did it all accomplish? So far as an accompanying reporter can determine, the main achievements were in the Middle East, and these largely involved the slaying of hobgoblins:
President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, a leading practioner of personal diplomacy, was eager for contact with the new secretary of state but seriously worried about military rumbles from Washington. Haig went to great lengths to assure Sadat, according to sources, that the proposed Sinai peacekeeping force in connection with next year's Israeli withdrawal is not a cover for an American Mideast intervention force.
U.S. officials left Egypt believing that Sadat will go along with American participation in a Sinai peacekeeping force whose role is strictly limited. Moreover, Sadat is believed ready to permit regular U.S. forces to use facilities at the Egyptian base of Ras Banas on the Red Sea, if Washington will be content to seal this arrangement with only a handshake rather than a formal agreement.
Prime Minister Begin and his fellow leaders were happy with the Israeli policy orientation of the new administration, but worried by Washington's simultaneous courtship of Saudi Arabia. Haig's assurance that Israel is a "strategic asset" and central to U.S. Mideast policy was just what Jerusalem wanted to hear.
On the other hand, not even an extra $200 million in aid to Israel, via procurement gimmicks produced from Haig's kit bag, reconciled the Israeli leadership of the U.S. sale of the AWACS radar-surveillance plane to the Saudis. Despite Haig's pleas, the Israelis indicated they'll work hard on Capitol Hill against the AWACS sale.
Jordan's King Hussein, whose relations with Washington sank to an all-time low during the last years of the Carter administration, also sought to restore his "personal relationship with Washington." Haig apparently succeeded in doing so, aided by his rapport with Hussein as a fellow military man. (But on the way out of the area, Haig mistakenly referred to the Jordanian king as Hassan, the name of his younger brother and crown prince.)
While reportedly happy with Haig in private, Hussein made repeatedly clear in public his refusal to join the Camp David process or to negotiate a separate deal with Israel under a "Jordanian option." In an embarrassing incident, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan al Kassem took an anti-Israeli stand before reporters and cameras just after Haig claimed to have forged "a convergence of views."
The Saudi leadership, the the mirror image of their nemesis, was pleased with Washington's initial policies toward their country but wary of those toward Israel. Haig told the Saudis in strong terms that in both cases "we stand by our friends."
The Saudis, in private, are not that unhappy with U.S.-Israeli friendship if it holds the prospect of producing shifts in Israeli positions. And they were greatly pleased by Haig's statement of steadfastness toward Saudi Arabia.
Haig has said repeatedly in public and private that the anti-Soviet activism of the Reagan administration is vital to repairing American fortunes in the area. The regional leaders seemed to approve a more vigorous American role but at the same time some of them, including the Saudis, were concerned in advance of Haig's arrival about how far, how fast, the United States intended to move toward confrontation while its available resources are still in doubt. Haig is reported to have been reassuring on this point.
The least expected piece of business Haig transacted -- and one of the most important -- was over the sudden surge of fighting in Lebanon. In a flurry of official notes and private messages Haig appealed to such diverse actors as Moscow and the Vatican, Syria and Israel, to help put down the fighting.
The diplomatic efforts seem for the moment to have succeeded in preventing the fighting from becoming uncontrollable. But Haig did not help himself or this effort when he denounced Syrian "brutality" from the steps of the Israeli prime minister's office; that sent tremors through the conspiracy-prone Middle East.
A public figure seeking to avoid missteps would hardly select the Middle East snakepit for his first overseas journey. Moreover, the setting, in current circumstances, was far removed from the main focus of American and world attention in Europe, where Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger was speaking and acting for the United States on a previously planned trip. By the time Haig hit Europe, the Polish alarm bells had diminished.
A European hobgoblin, as the famous "senior official" told reporters on the last leg of Haig's trip, involved concern about "repetitive threats on a high level" regarding the situation in Poland. The Europeans "want to be careful," reporters were told, and apparently Haig does, too, believing that an overemphasis on the threat of Soviet military action might be a factor in causing it to happen. In his view the threat to Poland during the past week never went beyond the political level.
Haig turned aside public and private opportunities while in Europe to criticize Defense Secretary Weinberger, who laid down a trail of high-profile statements regarding Poland while Haig was plodding through the Middle East. One of the most sensational stories from the Weinberger party -- U.S. consideration of major arms sales to China in case the Russians invade Poland -- received no support on the Haig plane.
At the outset of this 18,000-mile shakedown cruise, Haig made known that he had no rabbits ready to pull out of a hat. He was as good as his word.