Muskie's task: erase US zigzag image

America's new secretary of state brings to Europe a tough but by no means totally hardline approach to the Soviet Union. Secretary Edmund S. Muskie is attempting to balance firmness with reason.

Mr. Muskie's first intention in his May 14 meetings with representatives of allied nations here is to focus on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the high priority the United States places on countering the consequences of that invasion.

American officials say that Mr. Muskie will stress that the Soviets must be made to pay a high price for the invasion and that there cannot be a return to business as usual with the Soviets as long as their troops remain in Afghanistan.

But the Muskie message will not be all stick and no carrot. A high-ranking official said that Mr. Muskie will also tell the NATO allies that the US wants to salvage that part of detente with the Soviets that can be salvaged. This is something the allies have been anxious to hear.

And Mr. Muskie's meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, planned for May 16 in Vienna, is apparently intended as much as anything to demonstrate to the allies that the United States does not intend to return to the cold war.

In the immediate aftermath of the Afghanistan invasion last December, many Europeans thought the President Carter was overreacting to the event when he called it the most serious threat to world peace since World War II. But they felt that Mr. Carter subsequently allowed the strategic importance of the invasion to be lost from public view when he placed a greater focus on the Americans being held hostage in Iran than he did on Afghanistan.

The Us reaction to Afghanistan and Iran exemplifies what has been seen until recently in Europe as a pattern of unpredictable zigzags in American foreign policy.

For many weeks now European diplomats have been asking how much of the Carter administration's foreign policy is based on what amounts to the tactics of an election year. How much of it is based on passing emotion, they ask, and how much on a lasting national interest?

While they are pleased that the Carter administration seems to have found a balance between a push for increased defense preparations in the wake of Afghanistan and a need to continue to pursue what remains of detente, Europeans are increasingly asking what American long-range strategy is toward the Soviet Union. AS one European ambassador put it, simply punishing the Soviets is not a policy. Europeans admit that long-range strategy may be too much to ask of the Americans in an election year. But they are insisting on a guarantee of increased predictability in American policy through the use of intensified consultations between the US and Europe.

Given his reflective nature and measured approach. Secretary Muskie is expected to go far toward reassuring the Europeans that the US is not swinging toward the extreme of a purely negative, anti-Soviet policy.

Given his long experience with compromises and consultations in the American political process, Mr. Muskie's promises to take European views into account are likely to be received with seriousness here.

The final communique to be issued by May 14, at the end of meetings of the NATO and foreign defense ministers, is expected to show that the Europeans, for their part, are willing to agree to a series of accelerated defense measures whose implementation is being hastened as a result of Afghanistan.

These measures, which will include increased military aid to Turkey and enhanced NATO maritime defense, troop readiness, and the "pre-positioning" in Europe of large stocks of war materials, among other things, are intended in part to send a "signal" to the Sovietas to how seriously the allies view Afghanistan.

There is some disappointment on the part of the Americans, however, over the fact that the Europeans have not done more to restrict the credits and trade guarantees they provide to the Soviet Union.

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