The debate over Laos, almost as intense if not as bitter as the Vietnam debate, has done more than clarify the nature of the American involvement in that patchwork kingdom which has played a secondary but significant role in the Vietnam war while also engaging in its own struggle to survive as a unitary nation. The Senate's dual actions in prohibiting the use of ground combat troops in both Laos and Thailand, and in curbing the right of the President to make a "national commitment" to any country without prior Congressional approval, have temporarily satisfied the common determination to avoid "another Vietnam." But the fundamental problem of how American policy should be made and conducted in Southeast Asia has only begun to be reëxamined.
The broad outlines of our future policy in Asia were given by President Nixon during his Asian trip last year, most fully at his preliminary stopover in Guam, but much remains hazy about the nature of our current commitments and responsibilities there. The President and other administration officials in speeches and press conferences since then have reëmphasized that, in line with reducing "our involvement and our presence" around the world, as Mr. Nixon put it in his State of the Union Message, the nations of Southeast Asia will henceforth have to bear the main burden of defending themselves against all but the most flagrant-including nuclear- forms of aggression. Still unclear and requiring further reappraisal are such substantive matters as the prerogatives of the Executive and the Departments of State and Defense to make agreements or pledges short of treaties with foreign countries without "the advice and consent" of the Senate.
What must be gone into thoroughly, moreover, are such complicated and specific questions as the advisability and legitimacy of using certain methods, especially clandestine ones, to achieve limited purposes. This includes the question of what sort of assistance the Central Intelligence Agency or any other intelligence branch of the government can or should give to