In months of guerilla war from the right against centrist tendencies in Reagan diplomacy, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has won little that is visible on the surface.
All of the nominees for high State Department posts whom Helms has contested have been confirmed or are on their way to certain confirmation. None of the alternative nominees publicly recommended by Helms for major posts has been hired.
Nonetheless, an administration anxious not to confront or offend him has tiptoed and temporized in ways that leave the impression that Helms is a major face in American foreign policy. Above all, the administration has been reluctant to claim victory.
In the Senate yesterday, Helms permitted himself to be maneuvered by Democrats into a showdown roll-call vote on the nomination of Chester A. Crocker to be assistant secretary of state for African affairs, a post of seemingly great importance to Helms. Crocker was confirmed, 84 to 7, over Helms' opposition.
The strange story of Helms' challenge and the Reagan administration's response dates at least to Jan. 14, shortly before Inauguration Day, when 17 Republican senators, meeting under Helms' chairmanship as a "conservative steering committee," discussed with growing dismay the many senior State Department posts being awarded to a political, non-ideological career figures associated with previous Republican and Democratic administrations.
Reflecting this concern, Helms wrote privately a few days later to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.
When the impending selection of Haig to be Reagan top diplomat was in trouble, Helms came to Haig's defense in a telephone drive that may have saved the nomination. A greatful Haig therefore was attentive to Helms, although at the same time not inclined to jettison senior aides Haig had chosen.
The expected nominations came slowly to the Senate from the White House. At the end of March, a dissatisfied Helms began placing "holds" on Senate action to confirm senior State Department nominees.
Technically, a "hold" meant only that Helms should be notified before floor action was to begin but, in legislative practice, a "hold" by even a single senator is a barrier that must be either withdrawn voluntarily or overwhelmed by a party leadership decision to confront the dissenter.
In the Foreign Relations Committee, Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) was ready to confront Helms, even after the North Carolina senator went public on April 24 with a 10-page letter detailing some of his objections.
Contested nominees won committee approval in late April and early May in a series of 16-to-0 votes, with Helms not participating, but Helms' "holds" still had to be overcome.
Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a longtime associate of Henry A. Kissinger, won approval by lining up overt White House backing for his nomination as assistant secretary of state for European affairs and convincing Helms in a private meeting of his conservatism.
Robert D. Hormats, a veteran official of the Ford and Carter administrations, lined up support among business leaders close to Helms who valued Hormats' work in trade and import questions. The "hold" lifted, Hormats was confirmed as assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.
Thomas Enders, named to be assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, won Helms' support with his strong anti-Cuban policy positions. His nomination is yet to be voted on, but Helms no longer is a problem.
In these and other cases, Haig and the top rank of the White House left it to the nominees to deal with Helms as best they could. This was particularly evident after May 15, when Helms met unannounced with Haig at the State Department to present a letter listing continuing concerns and recommending outsiders whose nomination for second-level policy jobs would ease those concerns.
After reading Helms' letter, John H. Holdridge, nominated to be assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, notified two of his top assistants that they would be leaving their posts and told Helms by telephone that two persons recommended by the senator would be acceptable in such high positions.
The two being replaced were leaving anyway, and Holdridge knew at the time that neither of the two Helms-recommended replacements was interested in the jobs. Holdridge's maneuvering, synthetic or real, convinced Helms to life his "hold" but also embarrassed the State Department when the arrangement was leaked to the press from Capitol Hill.
In the case of Myer Rashish, nominated to be undersecretary of state for economic affairs, Helms still has not given up. At his insistence, the Foreign Relations Committee is to reopen hearings on Rashish this morning to hear his view of the sale of Caterpillar Tractor Co. pipelaying equipment to the Soviet Union. Helms reported that Rashish favored the sale.
In a political twist well known on Capitol Hill, the sale is backed by committee chairman Percy. Caterpillar Tractor is the largest private employer in his state.
Probably the most interesting case is that of Crocker, nominated to be the State Department's top African affairs official. Through his nomination was not opposed by south Africa, which appears to have privately welcomed it, Crocker has been attacked by Helms as insufficiently friendly to that country.
This has led to reports here, which also surfaced in the Johannesburg press, that extreme right-wing elements in South Africa have a part in the drive against Crocker.
Crocker refused Helms' demands that he fire his career deputy, Lannon Walker, and hire a Boston researcher, Clifford A. Kiracofe Jr., in an important policy-making role for southern Africa. Nonethless, Helms continues to say that Kiracofe will be a policy maker, and he still criticizes Crocker.
Late yesterday, the newly confirmed Crocker, along with Deputy Secretary of State William P. Clark, left on a mission to South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Whether Clark's participation is a vote of no confidence in Crocker and his policies, or a vote of confidence, depends on whether you believe Helms' aides or the African bureau of the State Department.