Most deftly this past week Leonid Brezhnev of the Kremlin extracted an easy propaganda advantage out of the Reagan administration's maneuverings over guns going to El Salvador.
All he had to do was just what he did -- say he hoped for restoration of "normal relations" with the United States. He proposed a new "dialogue" and a new summit conference to that end.
Thus, eureka, he places himself in the eyes of most of the world as a man of peace decked in olive branches and walking in a cloud of doves. By contrast the Reagan administration is seen as a blustering Mars brandishing open threats at the guerrillas in the back jungles of El Salvador and veiled threat at Cuba, and even at the Soviet Union itself.
At the latest turn in the story President Reagan found himself obliged to fall in reluctantly behind Mr. Brezhnev's move. Mr. Reagan said he might go to a summit meeting with the Soviets, under the right conditions, sometime "later."
The new team in Washington had opened the way for Mr. Brezhnev by talk of "firing a warning shot across Moscow's bow" and saying "we do intend to go to the source" (of those guns going to El Salvador). Since the guns came through Cuba and allegedly from communist countries, including the Soviet Union, "the source" could equally be Havana or Moscow.
No matter how false the picture created by the contrast between Washington's hard words and Moscow's soothing syrup, the fact remains that Washington has succeeded in getting itself in a lot of trouble by launching forth on the Salvador affair in such a hurry and without proper propaganda preparation.
The decision to treat insurgency in El Salvador as a major matter, and to make a big thing of it on the world stage, has not only raised a lot of eyebrows. It has also put a strain on US relations with its NATO allies and with its most important Latin neighbor, Mexico.
For example, Gen. Vernon Walters, a former deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, arrived in Mexico City on Feb. 16 armed with the official Washington documents that purport to show a worldwide conspiracy. Those documents allege that Cuba is at the focal point of the conspiracy. The hope was that the Walters mission would cause Mexico, and other Latin American countries on the itinerary, to see the Salvador affair from the Washington point of view.
But it seems to have had the contrary effect. Four days after the Walters mission reached Mexico City President Lopez Portillo of Mexico signed a new sugar agreement with Cuba and declared during the signing ceremony that Cuba is the Latin American country "most dear" to Mexico.
In other words the new hard line about arms to El Salvador is not acceptable in Mexico City. Nor is it popular in Western Europe where it has complicated chances for the project, dear to Washington, of obtaining the agreement of the European allies to the stationing on their territory of a new generation of short- and medium-range nuclear weapons, possibly to include the so-called neutron bomb.
Reports from Bonn indicate that sympathy among the Social Democrats who make up West Germany's governing party is running heavily with opposition in El Salvador, not with the ruling junta, which Washington is backing. It would be ironic if the taking of the hard line for Central America would cancel out the possibility of a new hard line in Europe.
There was poor coordination in other respects. On Feb. 20 the Pentagon in Washington released an appraisal of the military situation in El Salvador that estimated that the El Salvador Army of some 10,000 men is so ill prepared that it has "no hope" of defeating the guerrillas. This was issued one month after the guerrillas broke off their much advertised "final offensive" which had failed to take a single important city away from the ruling junta.
Also on the day of the release of the pessimistic Pentagon appraisal the president of El Salvador's ruling junta, Jose Napoleon Duarte, stated in an interview printed in the New York Times that for the time being his Army had sufficient military strength to handle the guerrillas and that his greater need was for economic aid.
Since then it has been reported that private negotiations between the US and Nicaraguan officials have brought from Nicaragua a decision to impound stockpiles of arms now in Nicaragua that supposedly are intended for the El Salvador guerrillas. If President Duarte's appreciation of the military situation in his country is correct, the Nicaraguan decision means that the danger to his regime is over.
One theory advanced among Washington officials for making such a big thing of 200 tons of weapons to El Salvador through Cuba was to impress Moscow with the determination and toughness of the new managers of US foreign policy in Washington. What it has in fact done has been to give Moscow an opportunity to seize the pro-peace role on the world stage, an opportunity Moscow was delighted to seize and exploit.
There are two ways of handling a problem of weapons being sent to opposition guerrillas in a Central American country. One way was used by the US in 1964. American intelligence agents spotted and seized a shipload of weapons heading for rebel forces in Guatemala. It was done quietly. It was totally successful in pinching off the rebellion. No fuss was made.
The other way is to make a big noisy thing of it on the theory that somehow there is an advantage in doing the thing on a public stage.
Well, the hand has been played for maximum dramatic effect. The flow of weapons to the insurgents in El Salvador has been temporarily stopped -- by a private arrangement with Nicaragua, not by the publicized affair. And friends and allies are left wondering whether Reagan-Haig foreign policy is going to be all that much more proficient and professional than was C arter-Brzezinski foreign policy.