While the libel cases brought by William Westmoreland and Ariel Sharon are heavy with legal implications, they are equally heavy in their potential impact on the relations between the public, the press and foreign policy makers. Such is the contrariness of the conservatives, fallen-away Democrats and others of right-wing persuasion in Ronald Reagan's legions, that no matter who wins, the press is bound to take a beating.

As documentary evidence, I would offer an excerpt in a recent issue of Public Opinion magazine from "Grave New World," a book (to be published this spring) by Michael Ledeen of Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ledeen worked briefly at State for Alexander Haig, and his intellectual connectioclude Henry Kissinger and Jeane Kirkpatrick. So his jaundiced view of a freewheeling press is widely shared and familiar.

It begins with the proposition that because "most top officials" begin the morning with compilations of press clippings, this conditions their day's work and has "more influence on politics than even the most secret intelligence." That's cause enough for anxiety, coming from a former insider. But you have to accept it if you are to entertain the rest of his reasons why the performance of the press has a "devastating effect on our foreign policy." This is so, the argument proceeds, because the press is afflicted by "ignorance of the world," "abstract moralism that permeates our popular culture" and, even worse, ambition. It directs its efforts at grabbing the attention of readers and viewers "not much interested in foreign news except as it affects them directly and dramatically." The result is a relentless search overseas for "an American angle," preferably scandalous.

So far, this is an arguable theory. But when it is applied to coverage of foreign policy, it takes on a special dimension. The press becomes no better in Ledeen's eyes than the "San Francisco Democrats" as seen by Jeane Kirkpatrick: "They always blame America first." The press is "super critical of our leaders, while foreign countries, including our worst enemies, often get surprisingly gentle treatment," Ledeen laments. "On the rare occasion that investigative journalism turns on other countries, the targets are typically friends and/or allies." Israel is cited as an example.

His conclusions: "The United States and its allies are held up against standards that are not applied to the Soviet Union and its satellites and proxies."

Strictly speaking, Ledeen is right. Underlying the legal question in the Westmoreland trial is the proposition that American leaders are, and ought to be, held to a stricter standard of truthfulness and responsiveness to the public than, let us say, Soviet leaders. Because we prize Israel's democracy and help defend it by furnishing Israel aid, should we not be entitled to hold Israel to a higher accountability than, say, Syria or Lybia? Holding ourselves and our allies to different, higher standards, in short, is part of what those New York libel suits are all about. As a general principle, I don't understand what Ledeen thinks is wrong with that.