Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr. applied some mid-course corrections to Reagan administration foreign policy last week, and some of the latest adjustments may have far-reaching repercussions.
Haig returned Friday evening from his six-day journey to meet Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko in Geneva and Israeli and Egyptian leaders in their capitals. No diplomatic triumphs were scored, and the easily ruffled Haig returned to a new burst of press criticism, seemingly generated by Washington's incessant bureaucratic and ideological infighting.
But the impact of the week's trip for both Soviet-American and Middle East policies is far more significant than the immediate score cards indicate.
In announcing that "the long, dark shadow of Poland" had fallen across his nearly eight hours of talks with Gromyko last Tuesday, Haig was seeking to protect the administration's theories of "linkage" between Soviet actions and U.S. policies, and to protect himself against criticism for talking to the Russian at all.
The statement takes on greater importance, however, in light of a conclusion by Haig and his aides, made known on the eve of the Gromyko meeting, that Poland will be "a long-term problem" rather than a short-term crisis. The implication of that judgment is great.
In view of the global stakes, military, political and economic, of the superpower relationship and the many possible flashpoints of conflict, a long-lasting Polish shadow could be of fundamental importance. The U.S. sanctions recently imposed, for example, would be expected to remain in place for a long time, as would any additional sanctions that might be imposed.
The experience of Soviet repression in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 suggests that a Polish "shadow" will tend to dissipate over time as new crises and considerations take priority between Moscow and Washington.
In recognition of this possibility, Haig refused to tie the opening of new U.S.-Soviet strategic arms negotiations directly to the Polish situation, publicly or in the meeting with Gromyko.
It was the Soviet minister, according to an authoritative U.S. source, who wanted to talk about new strategic arms negotiations. The Russians had made clear since at least last September that they are ready to reopen such talks.
Before the imposition of martial law in Poland, Haig had planned to set a date for the new arms negotiations in last week's meeting with Gromyko. In the changed circumstances, he is reported to have told his Soviet counterpart, "We're not ready."
According to his account at a press conference late Tuesday, Haig also told Gromyko that "the U.S. side is actively engaged in preparations which would lead to the initiation of talks in this area, which we will be prepared to initiate when conditions permit."
With last week's meeting, Reagan administration policy toward the Soviets has entered its third phase.
The first was the unrelieved political and ideological hard line, which startled the Russians and alarmed Western European allies. The second was the tack toward the center with the lifting of the grain embargo, opening of Soviet-American negotiations on European-based missiles and expressions of a desire for improved relations.
Now, in the aftermath of martial law in Poland, imposition of U.S. sanctions and sharpened rhetorical conflict, relations seem to be heading into a freeze, in which political and strained but high-level meetings and arms control negotiations continue.
Flying on to Jerusalem and Cairo, Haig came face-to-face with the hard core of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the Palestinian issue, which the administration had managed to avoid during most of its first year.
The Carter administration placed the issue on a side track at Camp David by calling for a five-year transition period of Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza as a step toward an unspecified permanent solution.
But the negotiations between Israel and Egypt on the transitional arrangements have long been stalemated, and there is growing tension, especially in Israel, as the date approaches for consummation of the rest of the Camp David deal: the return of the remainder of the Sinai to Egypt at midnight, April 25.
In Israel and Egypt last week, Haig found that his U.S. "ideas" and "suggestions" were unsuccessful in breaking the stalemate.
The "minor progress" he was able to claim on substantive issues, for the most part, was already in hand before his trip in an Israeli policy paper which was withheld from publication at U.S request.
Probably the most important result of his efforts, from Haig's viewpoint, was the demonstration of continuing U.S. interest and involvement in the Middle East peace process, thus helping to reverse a "dangerous drift" of suspicion and cross-purposes between the two peace partners about the post-April 25 future.
Haig's emphasis on the peace process and attention to the Palestinian issue was a reversal of the earlier tendency to believe that a common anti-Soviet "strategic consensus" could be the basis for the American position in the region. Last week, in dramatic contrast to Haig's first journey to the region last April, little was heard of the common anti-Soviet strategy.
The strategic cooperation agreement enlisting Israel as an anti-Soviet partner of the United States was suspended by Washington in December in retaliation for Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.
Israel is in no rush to restore it.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, meanwhile, has asked Moscow to return some of the Soviet technicians ousted last September by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. American officials expect Mubarak to restore his relations with Moscow to a normal basis, although the United States will remain his major superpower partner.
All this does not mean that anti-Sovietism is dead in the Middle East, either as a fact of life or an administration imperative. But it does mean that the traditional issues and diplomacy of the Arab-Israeli dispute have reasserted themselves strongly in Washington's policy.
Having concluded that an Israel-Egyptian autonomy agreement, even an "agreement in principle," is not possible by April 25, Haig is promising to remain engaged in the push for an eventual settlement.
His chosen instrument for doing this is Richard Fairbanks, a 40-year-old Washington attorney who served as chief of the State Department's congressional relations during 1981. But Fairbanks, who is untutored in the torturous politics of the Middle East, may find he lacks the clout to do much without Haig's personal participation.
Having observed the dangerous buildup of tensions when U.S. policy is in doubt, Haig professes to be determined to take a strong role in regional affairs.
But as he discovered last week, the complications are enormous and progress toward solutions can be painful and time consuming.