US talks to itself when it talks defense

World affairs continue to be dominated by talk of guns in Washington -- and the absence of such talk from Moscow. The contrast is underlined by the fact that Soviet armed forces completed their Baltic maneuvers without marching on into Poland.

he propaganda advantage from the contrast continues to be on Moscow's side. Rioting in West Berlin was symptomatic of many Europeans' growing inclination, which is more or less general throughout Western Europe, to put a distance between themselves and Washington. The more the Reagan administration in Washington talks of guns, the more the NATO allies yearn for talk about talks.

One consequence of this contract is the trend among the West European allies toward trying to formalize separate policymaking machinery. They want to be able to have a West European foreign policy as distinct form a made-in-Washington foreign policy.

Another consequence is the cutting of West European defense budgets.The Europeans had agreed during the Carter years to raise their defense effort by 3 percent above inflation. The current trend, now that Washington is pushing up its own defense spending, is to lower theirs. The West Germans and the British are in the vanguard in defense budget cutting, but the trend is general.

There is nothing in this picture that would not be reversed should the Soviets do something spectacularly bellicose. But their last expanionist deed remains the invasion of Afghanistan. That happened well over a year and a half ago and has been going badly for them ever since. World attention has long since been diverted from that story by the flow of news coming from Washington about weapons.

No matter how mistaken the picture may be, the world is tending these days to think it sees a contrast between a militarist America and a passive Sovier Union. This past week's suggestion from Washington that Soviet clients have used poison as a weapon in Cambodia is less likely to persuade others of Soviet wickedness than of American aggressiveness.

During his recent trip to West Germany, Secretary of State Alexander Haig did his best to readjust the perspective. His emphasis was on prospective US talks with the Soviets later in the fall.

But back in Washington Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger appeared to win an apparent bureaucratic victory for the military over Budget Director David Stockman. The US defense budget is to be trimmed by a mere $13 billion (it is said) rather than by the $20 billion to $30 billion Mr. Stockman was supposedly seeking.

The figures are adjustable and the decision can be reversed. Congress is beginning to think for itself about possible ways of helping Mr. Stockman. The Senate's most distinguished and respected "hawk," Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, is wondering whether the new MX missile needs to be housed expensively in new places.

He askes, Why not just put MXs into some of the existing silos in place of Minutemen? His very question doubts the doctrine of Minuteman vulnerability, which has until recently been the stock argument for a $100 billion deployment program for the MXs.

But the present impression that Uncle Sam is determined to arm himself for possible trouble at a time when trouble is the last thing in the world that interests the European allies. Detente has become a bad word in Washington but is still highly regarded in Europe. And certainly, if Uncle Sam is going to build himself more and bigger gund, the Europeans see in this less need of themselves to do the same.

Meanwhile, much news had been made by the Washington visit of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but just what it really meant is less clear. The official word was that it had all gone off supremely well. That Messrs. Reagan and Begin are the best of friends. That they had no quarrel.what the professional diplomats wanted to know was whether President Reagan had succeded in buying off Israeli opposition to the sale of American weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Begins went away saying that he did not like the idea of the Saudis having the AWACS "spy" planes, which he argues could reduce Israel's relative military superiority over the Arabs. But to dislike them and to order a full-scale opposition to them by the Israeli lobby are two different things. The guessing is that he has told the lobby to put up a pro forma resistance, but to allow the American President to win out in the American Senate when the final vote is taken.

Since the vote does not come until the end of October, there is ample time left for the President to make those political arrangements in the Senate that could win the day for the sale to the Saudis -- even though more senators today are inclined against than for. Being "inclined" against a measure that the administration wants is always a desirable bargaining position for a senator.

There was much talk during the Begin visit closer military arrangements between Israel and the United States. Mr. Begin made it sound almost like a formal alliance. But American briefing officers made it all sound vague and uncertain. Mr. Begin wanted a text. There was none.

In other words Mr. Begin failed to get any structural or contractual military arrangement. There has never been a military treaty spelling out mutual obligations between Israel and the United States. President Reagan did not go beyond his predecessors in this matter. It is doubtful that Mr. Begin actually wanted such a formal arrangement, since it would limit his own freedom to attack or invade his Arab neighbors.

Mr. Begin did get the appearance of closer military association but without limitations on his own freedom of action and without commitments to the United States.

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