Reagan administration officials found themselves backpedaling nervously across continents and oceans yesterday, after Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. said in Cairo that Egypt is America's "foremost" friend in the Middle East, and presidential advisers in Washington -- glancing nervously toward Jerusalem -- hastened to say it isn't quite so.
Haig, after meeting in Cairo with Egypt's president-designate Hosni Mubarak, had said:
"The United States intends to work actively with our friends in the region, foremost among those the government of Egypt and the people of Egypt for whom our friendship and respect have been deepened by this tragedy."
Back in Washington, Reagan administration officials needed no reminder that the comment would not go down well with the Israelis. Asked on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM) about Haig's statement, national security affairs adviser Richard V. Allen quickly came to the defense of Haig, who has at times been his ideological partner and at times his intramural sparring partner.
"I'm sure, though I haven't seen that particular remark, that the secretary of state was undoubtedly referring to our friends among the Arab nations, among the moderate Arab nations," said Allen.
A half-hour later, on "Issues and Answers" (ABC, WJLA), presidential counselor Edwin Meese III tried to sound a similar defense, and got there eventually after a brief slip of his own.
Asked about Haig's comment, Meese first said: "Well, Israel is one of our foremost friends . . . ."
"One of them?" he was asked.
"Probably what the secretary of state was thinking of was among the Arab nations," Meese went on.
Asked if the long-proclaimed "special relationship" with Israel transcends other relationships, Meese added:
"Well, I think there is no question that our special relationship with Israel does have a particular significance . . . . But at the same time, I think there is no question that we are working also with Egypt in defense relationships . . . . So I think that we can build up a foremost relationship, if you will, with Egypt among the Arab nations without in any way sacrificing the special relationship Israel now enjoys."