The Reagan administration's handling of sudden and simultaneous crises in Poland and the Middle East last week displayed its skills at the implementation of foreign policy, but left abiding questions about its overall strategy.
Poland's imposition of martial law and the Israeli government's annexation of the Golan Heights had been longstanding "contingencies," as possible future troubles are known in governmental jargon, but both were surprises at the moment they occurred.
In its sudden time of testing, at the end of a year in which foreign crises only rarely impinged on its domestic preoccupations, the administration seemed to respond in sure-footed fashion to the challenges. By the time the crises actually broke, however, the administration's room to maneuver was extremely limited.
The absence by "administrative leave" of the president's national security adviser, Richard V. Allen, and the widely acknowledged inadequacy of the National Security Council system did not, in the crunch, appear to be important.
In crises, coordination is handled at the top, in this case six meetings since last Sunday of the NSC with President Reagan or the "special situation group" under Vice President Bush. The latter group met for 90 minutes at the White House yesterday, after which a report on its discussions was presented to Reagan.
The struggle in Poland between the communist system backed by Soviet power and the independent labor movement, Solidarity, has been an almost constant feature of the past 16 months, and the possibility of a final showdown has been a real one for most of this time.
Contingency plans for a reaction to one type of showdown, Soviet military intervention, were drawn up as early as a year ago and thoroughly discussed with North Atlantic Treaty Organization members.
There was less discussion and no allied agreement, though, about the contingency that Polish specialists always considered to be more likely: an internal party-state effort to suppress Solidarity without open resort to Soviet military force. There was little enthusiasm for discussing such an ambiguous possibility, with some allies insisting that an internal crackdown was internal Polish business.
Neither the Carter administration, which was nearing its end when Poland tasted new freedoms, nor the Reagan administration was ever able to come to a long-term decision about how to deal with the Polish experiment.
U.S. short-term food assistance totaling almost $800 million was made available over the months, and repayments of some Polish debts were temporarily postponed. But neither administration nor the West as a whole was willing or able to address the much larger requests for long-term aid and debt relief as Poland's economy continued to decline.
There was no agreement on how, when or whether to use the West's economic power or political leverage over the long haul, and a running debate about whether aid to Poland was an indirect bailout of the Soviet Union.
Once martial law slammed down on Poland Saturday a week ago, the administration quickly decided to steer clear of either incitement to internal revolt or approval of the crackdown.
It hung back skillfully while European allies established increasingly strong positions and the Roman Catholic Church under its Polish pope, John Paul II, became increasingly involved. At the same time, Washington provided public information and private leadership that encouraged the emerging international consensus about the Polish events.
Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger is to leave for Europe today with a set of U.S. suggestions for additional political and economic steps to deal with the "gray area" Poland now presents.
A separate series of options is under discussion in case of outright and unambiguous Soviet intervention, including the possibility of actions to "raise the price" to the Soviets in other areas of the world.
Israel's sudden annexation of the Golan Heights, which called into question the basis for future peacemaking arrangements in the Middle East, arose in part from the furious jockeying for position among Arabs and Jews that has been taking place for several months.
And that, in turn, flowed from the Reagan administration's inability to formulate and maintain a strategy that engages both the Israelis and the moderate Arab states.
The original idea of a "strategic consensus" in which Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Israel would be tacitly united in an anti-Soviet effort quickly foundered because of mutual mistrust and because it gave too little heed to crucial regional issues.
The administration continues to back the Camp David process, but this is drawing to a close in the Sinai and has little credibility on any other front. Hence the jockeying and regional infighting, partly to affect future developments.
In the absence of a respected framework, U.S. gestures toward the Saudis, Palestinians or other Arab actors create passion and fear in Israel. Gestures toward Israel to assuage the worries create passion and fears among the Arabs.
The political platform on which Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin won reelection last June called for the application of Israeli law to the Golan Heights, in symbolic and legal effect the transformation of the area from a temporarily occupied zone administered by Israel to an integral part of Israel. In terms of the long established Mideast bargain of peace for territory, such a change is of basic importance.
In view of Begin's increasing propensity to unilateral decisions and the troubled state of relations with the United States, the possibility of annexation of the Golan Heights had to be considered a serious one. However, there was no warning to Washington.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. first learned of the impending action from a news service dispatch reported to him as he flew home from Europe last Monday to deal with the Polish crisis. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis was immediately instructed to strongly oppose the move.
Learning after landing that the action had been approved by the Israeli parliament, Haig sent a message to Israel calling for "ameliorative action," partly on grounds that annexation would damage the position of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israel's Camp David negotiating partner.
A little later Washington became aware that the Israelis were building up troops near their northern borders, a possible precursor of an attack into Lebanon. Assurances were quickly asked on that score. Israel responded Thursday morning that the troop movements were "defensive."
Late Thursday, following a meeting of Reagan and his senior foreign policy advisers, Haig dispatched advance word to Israel of the U.S. reprisals that were announced Friday. That was as big an unhappy surprise to Israel as the original action was to Washington.
What Washington wants now is a clear Israeli statement of willingness to negotiate for peace on the previously accepted basis of U.N. resolutions, including bargaining about the Golan Heights. Without such a statement, the trouble between the United States and Israel is likely to get worse. Even with it, damage has been done on all sides.