In a cozy Oval Office chat shortly before President Reagan's superlative speech to Congress April 28, Alexander Haig squarely addressed the problem of guerrilla warfare being waged against the secretary of State in part by Reagan's White House staff.
That discussion between the president and his first Cabinet officer comes none too soon. It was delayed by the president's convalescence and the administration's sharp focus on Reagan's economic recovery program.
The result of the Reagan-Haig tete-a-tete may be a welcome period of quiescence in the staccato underground campaign against Haig that has come close to destabilizing his stewardship of the nation's foreign policy. Reagan professes to intimates not only that he has been unaware of the oblique thrusts against Haig but that Haig enjoys his total confidence.
"Our problem has never been with the president," one Haig colleague told us. "The problem is with the clones" -- that is, White House chief of staff James A. Baker III. Now that Reagan himself has been informed firsthand about the way the "clones" are waging guerrilla warfare against Haig, continuation might imply Reagan's consent, foretelling the early end of Haig's tenure at State.
But not necessarily. The major reason for anti-Haig activity be the "clones" is to educate for former NATO commander to the way Ronald Reagan prefers to have the business of government conducted in his administration.
For Haig, being force-fed that lesson has not come easy. Two months into the administration, to cite a conspicuous example, Haig was notified about a meeting of the Cabinet council on trade to discuss a matter crossing lines between foreign policy and trade policy (not Japanese auto imports). Haig notified Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, the chairman of that Cabinet council, that the issue was under State Department jurisdiction. He failed to show up for the meeting.
Several days later, a session of another of another Cabinet council at which State was wanted was similarly boycotted. Baker was given the assignment of changing that pattern, and he went at it with his customary vigor.
To get handle on national security policy and more control over the preeminent role Haig expected to play, Baker and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III moved into the hear of the policy-making machinery of Richard Allen's National Security Council staff. Middle-level arms control officials of the State and Defense Departments were surprised when Maj. Gen. Robert Schweitzer, Allen's deputy, recently said he would need four copies of a secret decision memorandum agreed to when the meeting ended. Asked why he needed four copies, he said one for himself, one for Allen, one for Meese and one for Baker.
Thus, the education of Al Haig to Reagan's style of governing has implanted the president's White House staff in the center of policy-making to monitor even ground-level decisions. This intrusion by essentially political staff men goes far beyond the Carter, Ford or Nixon administratins. At the same time, Allen's SC role remains murky if not invisible.
How much success Baker Baker has had in the education of Al Haig is debatable. Haig, who fought hard against the president's decision to end the grain embargo, U.S. allies. In an interview April 25 with the Associated Press, he warned that if the Soviets intervene in Poland Reagan would impose an "across-the-board" trade cutoff. On April 28, The New York Times headlined White House "exception to view of Haig." It quoted an anonymous staffer as saying that Haig had gotten "somewhat out front" of Reagan.
One senior White House staffer told us privately, without criticism or commendation, that Baker is the sole source of Haig's unceasing troubles with the White House. That would define the formidable nature of Baker's job in trying to tailor the Haig cloth to Reagan's measurements.
Now that the president himself has discussed the most critical personnel problem in his young administration with Haig, a new chapter unfolds. How it ends depends on Haig as much as the president.