Local wars give way to big-power minuet

The world's local wars diminished in numbers and intensity this past week, leaving center stage in world affairs for the moment to the stately, slow-time minuet of great power maneuverings.

The move of the week was the Soviet announcement that it is officially and publicly renouncing ''first use'' of nuclear weapons. This upset Washington, where the possibility of using nuclear weapons has long been considered the first line of NATO defense in Western Europe. The Soviet announcement to the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament also took the propaganda initiative away from the Reagan White House.

President Reagan had enjoyed a more favorable image among NATO allies during his recent trip to Europe for having pointed toward new and lower limits on nuclear weapons than the Soviets are yet willing to contemplate. His own appearance at the UN session, where he attacked Soviet ''aggression'' and repeated the European peace theme, was clearly aimed at readjusting the propaganda balance back in his favor.

The trouble for Washington about the nuclear ''no first use'' idea is that the Soviets have, at least on paper, a substantial advantage over NATO in numbers of conventional weapons in Europe, especially tanks. Just how good those tanks are as a threat to NATO is being newly questioned in the light of recent fighting in the Middle East.

Soviet tanks in Syrian hands took a beating from American tanks and anti-tank weapons in the hands of the Israelis. Even Moscow's latest and best tank, its T- 72, made a poor showing. The Israelis claim to have knocked out nine of them.

But there is still the classic NATO concern about the possibility of a sudden Soviet thrust into NATO territory by a mass of Soviet tanks. In standard NATO thinking the best way to counter that danger is to be able to use a short-range nuclear weapon. The so-called ''neutron bomb'' is thought to be about the ideal deterrent for a massed tank attack. As long as NATO could use such a weapon, it is doubted that the Soviets would actually launch the massed tank attack.

Thus to accept a ''no first use'' pledge would supposedly deprive NATO forces of their easiest and best way of heading off a use by the Soviets of their superiority in numbers of tanks. NATO would have to rely on conventional weapons to deter such an attack.

The Soviet move was a shrewd propaganda maneuver. It even has the support of a number of prominent American authorities who believe that it is time for the US to renounce any use of nuclear weapons and rebuild its NATO defense thinking on conventional weapons.

Tanks were not the only Soviet weapons that lost prestige in the Middle East war. Some of Moscow's latest and best fighter planes were easily outmaneuvered by American planes. Also the Israelis used a new American weapon against Soviet surface-to-air missile batteries (SAMs) with spectacular success. The Israelis knocked out all SAM batteries in the Bekaa area, thus depriving the Syrians of any effective defense against Israeli air power.

The Israeli invasion at this writing had turned into a test of will in Washington. The Israelis were poised at the edge of the city of Beirut. Unless they could get a favorable political settlement in Lebanon, they appeared ready to wipe out the last of the PLO army, which had fallen back with its leadership into the city.

Beirut is a city of nearly a million persons, most of whom are civilian bystanders in the Israeli offensive against the Palestinians. Civilian casualties have already been heavy in the Israeli advance up the Lebanese coast. In that advance, and in an attack on Beirut, Israel uses American weapons provided to Israel under a contract specifying that they are to be used for defense only, not for offense.

Israeli forces moved during the week well beyond the announced Israeli purpose of clearing the PLO out of a 25-mile zone north of Israel's own frontier. Their surge beyond the 25-mile line seemed to indicate an intention to drive both PLO and Syrian forces as far out of Lebanon as possible.

This further goal could be achieved only with Washington's consent. There were signs in Washington that President Reagan was growing increasingly disturbed over the extent of Israeli ambitions, and the damage to life and property being done in the process with American weapons.

Is Mr. Reagan willing to accept the blame for allowing Israel to destroy the PLO, to drive Syria out of most of Lebanon, and wreak massive further damage to human life and its fabric in Beirut? The question hung over the White House during the week.

Meanwhile, the British task force in the Falklands had completed one of the most brilliant military operations in modern history. It had traveled 8,000 miles in sometimes stormy seas, gone ashore in raw winter weather within range of home-based enemy air power, and outmaneuvered a force double its own size.

The victory was achieved with remarkably low casualties, considering the circumstances, both among the British attackers and the Argentine defenders. It was a spectacular example of the residual capability of a NATO country to project effective military force at a great distance from home base. It must give Moscow some cause for reflection.

In fact, several events of recent days must be causing concern at Soviet High Command headquarters in Moscow. It is highly doubtful that the Soviets could deploy a force similar to the one the British used in the Falklands campaign at any such distance from home base and fight as skillful a campaign against superior numbers. Besides, Soviet SAMs have been neutralized by the new US weapons used against them in Syria. Moscow's best MIGs did poorly in the air and Moscow's best tanks were not winners on the ground.

Other local wars are momentarily quiescent. The Iranians are presumably regrouping after their recent successes against the Iraqis. It is not yet clear whether Iran will take the offensive and invade Iraq.

The Soviets in Afghanistan seem to have scored something of a local success in gaining at least temporary control over the Panjshir Valley, which lies north of Kabul. A main highway from the Soviet Union itself runs through the valley to Kabul and is important to the Soviet supply line to its troops in Kabul. Resistance fighters have apparently been driven out of the valley.

Another of the world's other long-running local wars, in Chad, seems also to have quieted down. The former ''rebels'' -- under one-time Defense Minister Hissein Habre -- have stormed back into power in the capital of N'Djamena, forcing President Goukhouni Woddei to flee the country. The Libyans, who once backed Woddei, this time have stayed at home.

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