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Sided With Shultz on Libya Raid : Poindexter 'Speaks Softly' but Is Decisive on Policy

April 23, 1986|ELEANOR CLIFT | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When John M. Poindexter was promoted to national security adviser last December, many in the Reagan Administration dismissed him as a competent but faceless technician, content to work behind the scenes and to cede the power and glory to others.

To the surprise of those who expected him to shuffle papers and trundle obediently between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, Poindexter has turned out to be a significant force in Administration councils.

"He embodies the principle of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, in terms of forcefulness," a key White House official said.

As an advocate of using military force as an essential tool of diplomacy, Poindexter has buttressed the hard-line tendencies of the Reagan Administration. By providing the swing vote between Shultz and the more cautious Weinberger in policy deliberations over Libya, for example, he helped open the way for the April 15 air strike.

"He does believe strongly that diplomacy has to be underwritten by the willingness to use force," said his predecessor, Robert C. McFarlane, who recommended him for the job. McFarlane called Poindexter "one of the brightest intellects I've ever been associated with."

On several counts, the initial assessment was correct. The 49-year-old Poindexter, a five-year veteran of the National Security Council, has remained barely visible outside the White House. He is so soft-spoken and self-effacing that one White House adviser described him as standing out "like a white goose in a snowstorm."

His reputation for cool efficiency has also held up under a series of tests that range from helping ease out dictators in the Philippines and Haiti to the latest air attack on Libya.

But there has been nothing of the passive technician about him.

A career naval officer with the rank of vice admiral, Poindexter has found what one official called a natural affinity with Shultz on the question of how to combat terrorism. Like Shultz, he thinks military strikes should not necessarily be the last resort.

"He's a driving force," this official said. "He makes a difference, for better or worse. He's decisive, and he knows where he wants to go. He's not just a referee. He makes it easier to move policy along--some would say too far and too fast--on Libya."

Some White House advisers, speaking on the condition that they not be identified by name, confessed to having misgivings about the Administration's policy on terrorism. They charged that it provides "instant gratification" but lacks "strategic vision" and does not take into account potential damage to U.S.-Soviet relations and allied unity in Europe.

A 'Very Risky' Leap

One official who has worked with Poindexter said he felt that the Administration did not do enough to exhaust nonviolent remedies before turning to force. "It's very risky to leap to that end of the spectrum," he said.

Still, Poindexter is credited with easing tension on policy within the Administration and embracing the concept of "proportional response" to Libyan threats, a concept that has enabled Weinberger to support the U.S. attacks.

Describing Weinberger's initial reluctance to endorse plans for U.S. retaliation in the Gulf of Sidra last month, one official said mockingly, "Weinberger wants ratification by the public before you do anything."

Poindexter's White House colleagues said he has shown a remarkable willingness to challenge Pentagon chieftains even though, as a naval officer, his own future appointments and promotions may lie in the hands of those chieftains.

Backed Packard Commission

Despite Weinberger's objections, Poindexter pushed for the creation of the blue-ribbon Packard Commission last year to study defense expenditures in the wake of a series of embarrassing disclosures about overpriced hammers, coffee pots and the like.

"That took quite a lot of moxie," said one official, pointing out that Poindexter was McFarlane's deputy at the time and did not face Weinberger with anything like equal authority.

Poindexter also has sided with Weinberger on occasion. Earlier this year, he convinced White House aides that a presidential speech devoted to defense spending was a worthy undertaking despite their objection that it was "a losing proposition and not worth making," an Administration official said.

Poindexter has also shown ability to level with the President, no small feat considering Reagan's stubborn optimism about most problems. One foreign policy official who accompanied Poindexter to the Oval Office when he was still McFarlane's deputy said he was struck by Poindexter's bluntness.

Sugarcoats Nothing

"He would just lay it on the line," this official said. "He never tried to sugarcoat anything. Everyone knows what an optimistic guy the President is, but he was not deterred by that. If the ship were going down, I would want him around."

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