Grain embargo signals

Talk about a move to lift Washington's grain embargo against the Soviet Union comes before the Reagan administration has put forth its coherent policy for East-West relations. Any change in the embargo should await completion of such a policy. In international terms it would be just as much a "wrong signal" to end the resitrictions now as it was when the administration first used that phrase. The White House and State Department have wisely reaffirmed this position with a joint statement that, in effect, contradicted speculation by various officials on the imminent likelihood of halting the embargo.

In the circumstances, such a shift would give an impression of being taken for domestic political reasons. It could rally support for Mr. Reagan's farm legislation from farmers who oppose the embargo. It would follow through on Mr. Reagan's own campaign promise to end the restrictions. It would respond to his secretaries of agriculture and commerce, who seek such an outcome.

The problem is that the time is not ripe for it. Here are some of the reasons:

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* The embargo was begun in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Moscow has not responded to any international efforts to bring a just and peaceful settlement there. Recently the European Community turned down a request from France to sell more grain to Russia. If the US resumes full grain sales it will be letting down those nations that have cooperated with it, as well as turning its back on the plight of Afghanistan.

* There is the alternative suggestion that, forgetting Afghanistan, the embargo could be lifted if Moscow gave assurances of staying out of Poland -- or , better, gave evidence that it was doing so. This would be rewarding Moscow for not doing what it shouldn't do anyway. In any case Moscow probably would not give assurances against doing what it would not admit it had any intention of doing. As for evidence -- of troop movements, etc. -- the information available to the West is not necessarily authoritative and may in some cases be stage-managed. Before the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the lack of information on troop movements did not mean that the troops were not ready when the time came.

* It is argued, as Mr. Reagan has done, that the gesture of the embargo should not weigh only on farmers. Indeed, it has been appropriate for the government to compensate for the effect of the embargo on farmers, and perhaps it could do more to share the burden with other taxpayers. But if the grain embargo is lifted, then the American manufacturers of high-technology equipment might ask whether theym should continue to bear the burden of restrictions imposed in the past. The US requires an overall policy to decide what to do in these instances. This would also provide guidance for the general trade that has been chilled if not prohibited by the government since Afghanistan.

* Then there is the argument that lifting the grain restrictions might nudge the Soviets toward a disposition for talks such as the theater arms control negotiations sought by West Europeans. Some want such talks before accepting more US nuclear weapons on their soil. But Moscow does not need to be wooed for talks it wants anyway.

In short, rather than sliding into an East-West policy piecemeal, the Reagan administration ought to develop an overall concept -- and then see where grain fits in.

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