The Council on Foreign Relations, a body devoted to the study of foreign policy issues and populated by many leading figures of the U.S. establishment, will today consider the appointment of a new president at a meeting culminating what one participant called a tale of establishmentarian intrigue.
The new president is expected to be Peter Tarnoff, executive director of the San Francisco World Affairs Council and a former foreign service officer who served as a key aide to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in the Carter administration.
This prior association, according to participants in the selection process, is an argument being used against Tarnoff by some Council elders, who contend that the organization is already tainted by a reputation for elite liberalism.
Critics of Tarnoff's selection have mounted what one participant called "a vociferous campaign" against him and in favor of Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane, who recently resigned as President Reagan's national security affairs adviser.
Several informed sources said yesterday that McFarlane's candidacy was being pushed by former secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. Sources said another former national security affairs adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, will propose McFarlane's name at the Council board meeting, which convenes at 9 a.m. today in the Manhattan office of David Rockefeller, former chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, who stepped down earlier this year as council chairman.
However, McFarlane, reached by telephone yesterday, said he wasn't interested in the job.
The council has often been attacked by spokesmen of the New Right and other conservative groups as a conspiratorial bastion of liberal internationalism. The organization's only functions are educational and social, but it brings together many of the most influential figures in America, as the list of participants in this episode suggests.
Many participants in the selection process see the showdown this morning as part of a gentlemanly but intense confrontation between Vance and his former deputy secretary, Los Angeles attorney Warren Christopher, and Kissinger, who has long been close to Rockefeller. The previous president of the council was Winston Lord, a longtime Kissinger aide who has just been confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China.
Kissinger is not a direct party to the selection process. In 1981, the council's general membership voted him off the board of directors. Some participants in the council's work said yesterday that Kissinger's influence is regularly overestimated by insiders and outsiders. Scowcroft said in a telephone interview: "Stories that this is a Kissinger-Vance fight simply are not true." He refused to discuss any other aspect of the selection of a council president.
But others took a different view. One participant said. "Kissinger is running around town poisoning the well" against Tarnoff, and another said it was his understanding that Kissinger was behind a McFarlane candidacy as an alternative to Tarnoff.
In a telephone interview yesterday, McFarlane confirmed that he was notified about a week ago that he was being considered for the post, but he said he is not a candidate for it.
"Frankly, my own sense of the direction the council should be headed is different from that of the board," McFarlane said. He also said he believed that the council, for decades a prestigious private force in international affairs, could capture a more prominent role if it expanded its activities in Washington.
The board, he said, appears more interested in strengthening its base in the Midwest. "That's very defensible, but it's not the kind of situation I'd be interested in," McFarlane said.
Despite efforts in recent years to broaden participation in the membership-by-invitation group, more than 1,600 of the council's 2,376 members are from New York, Boston and Washington, and the rolls remain skewed toward eastern financial interests.
According to sources who declined to be named, Kissinger believes that the board should choose a new president with an eye to changing that image, which means selecting someone outside the traditional network of international affairs experts.
McFarlane's backers are said to be arguing that the committee settled on Tarnoff before McFarlane left his White House post and that choosing the former Reagan adviser would send an important symbolic message to conservatives.
Supporters of Tarnoff, meanwhile, have raised counter-arguments, among them the question of whether McFarlane possesses the appropriate qualifications for the council presidency.
Tarnoff, on his way to New York for the meeting, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
For his part, McFarlane said he has no plans to go to New York. "I'll be right here," he said from his Washington home. "I would think that the council would probably take the decision to appoint somebody else. I don't think anybody has an illusion that I want the job, because I don't."