WASHINGTON — Vice President George Bush, in an apparent move to demonstrate a measure of independence from the White House and the taint of the Iran- contra affair, said Wednesday that President Reagan's arms sale to Iran was "debatable."
"On the surface, you can make the case that it's wrong," Bush said in a television interview, but he continued to assert his support for Reagan's policy.
Meanwhile, one day after delivering a speech that Republicans hoped would ignite a White House recovery from the arms sale scandal, the President was faced with complaints, even from Republican allies, that his effort to address the crisis was insufficient.
'Felt He Looked Good'
"Most Republicans felt he looked good, but would have preferred to have heard more on Iran, to allay their fears and calm their concerns," said a well-placed Republican congressional aide, speaking privately. " . . . I don't think he did that, but I don't think it was a total disaster."
In his State of the Union address Reagan did not say the decision to sell arms to Iran was a mistake but only that it "did not work" and that he took "full responsibility."
Besides the problems the Iran operation has presented to Reagan, it creates a special dilemma for Bush in his quest for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination. With Reagan's popular support diminished, Bush can either distance himself from the policy--at the risk of appearing disloyal--or pronounce his support for Reagan at the risk of having to actively defend the Iran sale in his campaign.
Echoing the President
The vice president, echoing Reagan, has backed away from any suggestion that the primary goal of the arms sale was to win the freedom of the American hostages captured in Beirut--a goal the Administration has described as secondary to opening a bridge to "moderate" elements in Iran.
But one knowledgeable source portrayed Bush's comments Wednesday as an effort to show independence from Reagan. Bush's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, denied that was the vice president's intention.
In the interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" program, Bush said of the Iran effort:
"I think history has to prove whether it's wrong. I think it is debatable, and I think on the surface, you can make the case that it's wrong."
'Look at Whole Policy'
However, he added, "having said that, when you look at the whole policy and look at Iran's geographic standing and look at the problems facing them, if a small shipment establishes contact with moderate elements and if it results down the line in a solution to the Iran-Iraq war . . . I think we could argue that it was right."
"On the surface, selling arms to a country that sponsors terrorism, of course, clearly, you'd have to argue it's wrong, but it's the exception sometimes that proves the rule," he said.
At the White House, the depth of the problems Reagan faces six years into his tenure was reflected by a senior Administration official, who described the President as "very determined to control . . . the foreign policy and domestic agenda over the next two years."
During a day devoted to foreign affairs, the official told reporters that the movement of the Navy's seven-ship Middle East fleet into the northern Persian Gulf and the retention of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy and its battle group in the Mediterranean are intended as "precautionary measures" by the Administration.
Recent Hostage Seizures
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said tension in the Middle East has been "maybe heightened somewhat" by the recent hostage seizures in Lebanon, the Islamic conference taking place in Kuwait, and the fierce fighting between Iran and Iraq.
In another foreign policy development, the White House announced that Reagan is dispatching his national security adviser, Frank C. Carlucci, to Central America today "to judge the situation on the ground." The new member of the Administration's foreign policy team called in a recent White House senior staff meeting for a fresh assessment of the situation facing the U.S.-supported rebels fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Carlucci will visit El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica. A senior Administration official said Carlucci was not invited to Nicaragua.
The senior Administration official, speaking to reporters at the White House on condition of anonymity, acknowledged in a reference to the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate that the Administration will now face "greater political difficulties" than it did last year in trying to win congressional approval of its plan to send $105 million in military assistance to the Nicaraguan rebels.
"It's an uphill struggle," he said, but he predicted victory "if we put our shoulders to it."
However, Republicans assessing the President's performance in his State of the Union address and its impact on lawmakers were less than optimistic about Reagan's standing with the new 100th Congress.