Secretary of State George Shultz has been a good soldier in a way that his predecessor (who actually was a soldier) was not: he has been the trench warrior keeping his head down--none of that glory stuff. And for this he has come under "friendly fire" from anonymous snipers in the White House, in Congress, even at State. Shultz is a Haig in sheep's clothing, they've been saying; his reactive, methodical, uninspiring ways are the big reason Ronald Reagan's foreign policy has so little to show for itself.

So now Shultz has been sent over the top into the thick of the Middle East maelstrom. His mission is peace, and he is sure that "the desire, the need for it" is out there. In his interview with Meg Greenfield in The Post last Sunday and in other public statements he talks bravely of breakthroughs--on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and on the president's peace initiative of last Sept. 1

It is almost as if, by the sudden decision to throw Shultz into the breach, the Reagan administration is out to prove his (and its) critics wrong. We will show you, the administration seems to be saying, that we do have a Middle East policy; it's the Reagan Plan; and it's not dead.

But unless there has been a lot of secret diplomatic spadework--and some fairly firm commitments all around--the personal, high-profile intervention of Shultz at this late stage seems more likely to prove the critics right.

I am not saying Shultz will come home empty- handed. But whatever he achieves in Lebanon may well serve to spoil the larger success he seeks: new life for the Reagan plan to resolve the larger Arab-Israeli-Palestinian problem.

It is conceivable that the extra weight of an actively engaged U.S. secretary of state will be what's needed to clear away the final obstacles to an agreement between Lebanon and Israel on a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces. It is even possible that the Syrians will honor their commitment to withdraw as the Israelis withdraw.

This could remove a major Jordanian talking point for not participating in the Reagan peace process. King Hussein's argument has been that if the United States can't exercise influence over Israel on the issue of Lebanon, it is not a reliable partner in negotiations on the Palestinian question. Shultz talks as if he genuinely believes that the king, influenced by other Arab moderates, might then be prepared to shake off the obstructive hand of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization-- that he will make the requisite commitments to Israel's right to exist and to Camp David that would point the finger of intransigence squarely at the Israeli government.

But it is against just that chain of events, however remote, that the ever-resourceful Begin government is already digging in. A new line of defense against the Reagan plan is visible even now in Israeli public pronouncements. It cannot be a coincidence when only a day or so apart, the acting ambassador in Washington, Deputy Chief of Mission Benjamin Netanyahu, and the spokesman for the Israeli Cabinet, Dan Meridor, are saying almost the same thing in almost the same words (the former in The Wall Street Journal, and the latter at the American Enterprise Institute here).

What they are saying, paraphrased, is that the "Arabs" (curiously, both misplace Iran in this company) are by nature violence-prone and untrustworthy; that they war among themselves more often than they war against Israel; that the survival of their own dictatorial regimes is their principal concern; that they are united only by hostility to Israel; that for all these reasons, the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian issue is not central to Middle East stability-- solving that problem won't guarantee peace. The more sensible proposition--that there can be no hope of stability without solving that problem--is not addressed.

"The Arab world is littered with broken agreements," wrote Netanyahu. "The ongoing unrest in the Middle East isn't generated by the Palestinian problem but by the propensity for violence in the Arab world." Such is the chronic instability of Arab regimes, Meridor argued, that "if you sign an agreement, as good as it may be, with better promises than you ever thought you would have, and the morning after you don't have the same leader in that country, you are in trouble."

If that's truly the Begin government's belief, the Reagan plan was stillborn. Meanwhile, the literal digging in of new settlements at an accelerated pace (in the form of government-subsidized, nearly cost- free government housing on West Bank territory) consolidates de facto annexation.

The clock is running in another way as intensified presidential politicking threatens increasing diplomatic paralysis where matters affecting Israel are concerned. More power to George Shultz, if he can wind up the Lebanese occupation by foreign forces. But too late, with too little behind it, is the likely verdict on his larger effort to give meaning to the Reagan "initiative."