One year after taking office amid bipartisan praise and high expectations, Secretary of State George P. Shultz faces a growing perception that his influence with President Reagan is waning and that he has been superseded as the driving force in administration foreign policy.
Fueled by speculation about where Shultz and national security affairs adviser William P. Clark stand in the pecking order, this perception has been most evident in the debate over Central America.
Many executive branch and congressional leaders agree that Shultz, expected to act as a moderating force on administration actions, clearly is caught in the wake of the get-tough approach advocated by Clark and other hard-line presidential advisers.
The Central America controversy has raised questions about whether policy control in such other top-priority areas as the Middle East and East-West relations is shifting from the State Department to the White House.
Clark's emergence as overseer of interagency arms-control planning and the recent appointment of Robert C. McFarlane, Clark's deputy at the National Security Council, as Reagan's special Middle East envoy have been publicly interpreted as signs that the White House has been keenly disappointed by the failure of Shultz's much-touted Mideast initiatives and his apparent inactivity in arms control.
In fact, speculation about Shultz's status, including one hotly denied report that he was thinking of resigning, has prompted the White House to push him into the center of public attention. But these efforts have been so heavy-handed and obvious that they have had the opposite effect, fueling the speculation about Shultz's status.
In a series of interviews recently, senior officials at the White House and State Department insisted that while a certain amount of tension is inevitable, the interplay between Shultz and Clark is, as one put it, "not malicious."
The jockeying within the policy-making machinery, they contended, does not represent a grab for power like those made in previous administrations by such national security affairs advisers as Henry A. Kissinger against William P. Rogers or Zbigniew Brzezinski against Cyrus R. Vance. Nor is it a replay of bickering over turf and prerogatives that characterized Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s tenure at State during the first part of the Reagan administration.
Still, the officials acknowledged that some "realignments" have occurred because of a feeling in the White House that Shultz's tendency to focus on long-range goals and chip away at them methodically does not meet many of the president's most pressing political and ideological needs.
In actuality, the officials contended, this shift has been confined largely to Central America, thrust by the combination of events and Reagan's ideological convictions atop the foreign-policy agenda. But, the officials said, it was inevitable that as Clark's presence became so obvious in the area dominating public attention, there would be a rush of speculation that Shultz's influence was waning throughout the broader policy spectrum.
That, the officials contended, is not the case. But those within the White House said that, in some areas, they regard Shultz's approach as too passive and deliberative as Reagan prepares for what is expected to be a reelection bid and has a growing need for at least some results in the foreign-policy field.
Despite initial high hopes accompanying his appointment, Shultz has been unable to achieve any major, attention-grabbing accomplishments. He has had some successes, most notably in patching the bitter rift with European allies over the Soviet natural-gas pipeline and in teaming with Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan to blunt international debt problems threatening world economic order.
But these do not convert easily into bankable political capital for the president. As one official noted: "On the pipeline issue, you can't brag about the fact that after Reagan shot himself in the foot, Shultz bandaged it up for him. And while the debt problem is of major importance, it's something that only a convention of economists would find sexy and exciting."
On the issues that tend to dominate the front pages, Shultz has encountered seemingly unending frustrations. In the Middle East, his bold plan for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and his shuttle-diplomacy bid to get foreign forces out of Lebanon have run off the rails. In East-West relations, there are hopes for results on arms control and other relaxations of tensions, but relations between the superpowers are largely frozen in mutual suspicion and recrimination.
Shultz's response in each case has been to say, in effect, "Let's pick up the pieces and go at the problem again." But it is an approach that has caused impatience in an administration feeling increasingly impelled to shift to more direct, short-term strategies that promise earlier results, even at the risk of controversy and crisis.
That, the officials asserted, is what accounts for Clark's increasing activism. As one of the president's most trusted intimates who sees his role as ensuring that Reagan's wishes are translated into action, he has stepped into what the White House inner circle perceives as a void that Shultz is temperamentally and philosophically unwilling to fill.
But, the officials added, Clark's emergence from the anonymity in which he customarily prefers to operate is by no means an across-the-board phenomenon. Instead, the officials sketched this picture of the policy-making situation in the administration's three major areas of overseas concern:
* Central America. Even top Shultz aides do not dispute that in recent months power has shifted steadily from the State Department to Clark's White House office and that Shultz is unhappy about that and the execution of policy.
The problem goes back to Shultz's first days in office when he was forced to concentrate almost exclusively on the Middle East and the pipeline dispute. Central America was relatively quiet, and Shultz left policy management to Thomas O. Enders, then assistant secretary for inter-American affairs.
However, because of personality conflicts and suspicions that he was deviating too much from Reagan's view of the regional conflict, Enders lost the confidence of Clark who in May initiated his ouster and started taking a direct hand in day-to-day Central America policy.
State Department officials, and some elsewhere in government but outside the White House, believe U.S. policy has been poorly managed and sloppily executed since then. They think the administration has conveyed the impression of a confused policy and that the latest, seemingly hasty moves to hold major Army and Navy maneuvers in the region have backfired, hurting Reagan with the public and Congress as the presidential campaign year approaches.
Shultz, described by aides as not opposed to showing military muscle in the region, is understood to feel that much of the trouble could have been averted by better prior consultation with Congress about the maneuvers and greater effort to alleviate concern over the military exercises by emphasizing U.S. diplomatic efforts to promote negotiations.
While Shultz reluctantly acquiesced in dropping Enders, he was irritated by the appointment in May of former Florida senator Richard B. Stone as special envoy to the region. Officials said senior diplomats viewed Stone as unpredictable and espousing ideas with which Shultz and State disagree. Department officials say the relationship has improved because of Stone's efforts to be deferential and accommodating.
Shultz was not disturbed by the Clark-inspired decision to have Kissinger head a high-powered new commission on Central America. Although the appointment was interpreted in much of the media as another erosion of Shultz's authority, he is known to feel that Kissinger and most commission members are sympathetic to administration goals and that their voices can be a powerful weapon in the struggle for public and congressional support.
State Department sources say Shultz is determined "to get back into the ball game" on Central America but concede that it is unclear whether the department can muster the necessary clout. Enders' successor, Langhorne A. (Tony) Motley, enjoys the favor of both Shultz and Clark and could help bridge their differences.
However, Motley is hampered badly by the fact that he has no Central America expertise, and for the present at least, the sources say he is "irrelevant" to the policy process. It is expected to take some time before Motley demonstrates whether he can master the subject and show political skills necessary to restore the department's bureau of inter-American affairs to the center of decision-making on Central America.
* Arms Control. The appointment of Clark to head a new interagency council to develop strategy for the two crucial negotiations with Moscow on limiting intercontinental and intermediate-range missiles is not viewed anywhere in the administration as a blow to Shultz or State.
Experienced officials say that, as negotiations approach the most serious stage, the White House must take on the role of resolving differences between State and the Pentagon. In this sense, these officials say, the growing White House involvement is probably a sign that the administration is more serious about reaching an accord with the Soviets.
Shultz is said to be playing a larger role in these deliberations but is still not especially prominent in this field. His associates say he wants to explore, at least privately, ways to ease tension with the Soviet Union on a broad range of issues.
In this endeavor, Shultz is said to be meeting some resistance from Clark and possibly the president, who do not wish to be depicted as returning to the era of detente. However, senior State officials cite "encouraging atmospherics about the Soviets' desire to deal" recently and say Shultz has a go-ahead to explore them further when he meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko next month in Madrid and at the United Nations.
Shultz's views on arms control apparently are not meeting with resistance, possibly, some officials speculate, because it is more widely accepted in the White House that arms control may be achieved without broader accords with the Kremlin.
* The Middle East. Most officials say the selection of McFarlane to replace State Department loyalist Philip C. Habib as special Middle East envoy does not mean Shultz and the department are losing influence.
Shultz recognized that Habib's usefulness had ended in the Mideast because of Syria's refusal to deal with him on withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon. His aides say Shultz enthusiastically endorsed selection of McFarlane because he saw no suitable replacement within the career diplomatic corps and was wary of asking a well-known outsider to take on the high-risk assignment. In Shultz's view, if an outside "big name" tried and failed to get a Lebanon withdrawal, the effect would magnify the failure.
McFarlane is a tireless worker with a relatively low profile and strong links to the White House and State where he formerly served as counselor. Department sources also say he was anxious to get the job.
In retrospect, these sources say it was a mistake to go along with the convoluted arrangement that has McFarlane reporting to Shultz while remaining as Clark's NSC deputy. That, they concede, has helped foster the impression that Clark has his own man at the center of Mideast policy decisions.
But, the sources added, McFarlane cannot do both jobs and is expected to sever his ties with the NSC soon. In addition, the sources said, Shultz has seized on a reshuffle of Mideast policy and ambassadorial posts to show that he is keeping that area firmly under his thumb.
Despite rumors that the White House would dictate who would get various jobs in the changeover, Shultz had a list of those he wanted. The resulting selections of Richard W. Murphy as assistant secretary of state for Mideast affairs and a clutch of career Foreign Service officers to man major Arab world ambassador posts were his choices.