How to handle the Soviets

As of the last week of August the government in Washington was still clinging steadfastly to its attempt to block the Siberian gas pipeline even though the West European allies were defiantly shipping the parts for that pipeline to the Soviet Union.

The policy is about as clear a failure as anyone in the diplomatic world can remember. It is not going to stop the pipeline. It is making the Western allies irritable - to put it mildly. The net effect of the policy is decisively in favor of the men of the Kremlin.

Why then this marvelous demonstration of tenacity for a lost cause?

One official explanation was extracted by a New York Times reporter from Lionel H. Olmer, Commerce Department under secretary for international trade.

''The President's policy was clearly enunciated and to do other than fulfill the intent of the policy would have caused serious undermining of our reputation for reliability.''

The anti-pipeline policy is building a reputation among the allies for lightheadedness in foreign affairs. The idea that tenacity in pursuing a bankrupt policy builds confidence on the part of the allies in American reliability defies common sense. And yet the administration pushes doggedly ahead with its ban against US exports to the European subsidiaries of American companies that are delivering the forbidden parts.

Another explanation attributed to an anonymous White House source is that ''our purpose is to induce the Soviets to reform their system in a way that would concentrate on consumer needs rather than military.''

The motive is commendable. Most people outside the Soviet system would like to see the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe relaxed. Most would like to see the peoples both inside the Soviet Union itself and in its tributary countries given respite from the denials of freedoms which prevail wherever the Soviet Army dominates the scenery.

But the methods being used to serve the motive are not working.

Something is wrong, somewhere.

A sound policy needs more than a proper motive to succeed. It must employ means which actually serve, not disserve, the desired end.

What we actually have in front of us is the failure of a specific means to a desirable end. Those who conceived the purpose were not able to find and use methods which would serve the purpose.

At the end of the first Reagan year, and in obvious preparation of campaign arguments for the upcoming midterm elections, the Reagan White House publicity staff prepared a handsome book called ''The Reagan Presidency.'' Under a section on US relations with the Soviet Union, it says:

''In the face of President Reagan's determined US rearmament program, the Soviet leadership and much of the rest of the world see the United States no longer as a country in constant retreat under Soviet pressure, but as one willing to assert itself, to defend itself, and to protect its interests abroad.''

That is a rosy view of the situation (from a White House viewpoint) which bears little resemblance to the current scene. The rearmament program is stuck in Congress and is being pruned back due to economic necessity.

The Soviet Union and the rest of the world see the US as a country ineptly pursuing inconsistent policies which are alienating allies without intimidating Moscow. There is no evidence that Moscow is impressed or intimidated. There is some evidence that it has decided that doing diplomatic business with the Reagan administration would be a waste of time.

The basic trouble behind the inconsistency of lifting the grain embargo with one hand while imposing a pipeline ban which the allies reject with the other hand probably lies in a naive idea that the Soviet Union can be moved by external economic pressures.

Suppose the Soviets tried to drive Mr. Reagan off of his rearmament program by blocking Soviet exports to the US. How would the average American react? He would immediately agree to tighten his belt and accept less butter for the sake of more guns. There is nothing like unfriendly foreign pressure to arouse native patriotism and willingness to accept sacrifice.

The behavior of the Soviet peoples during World War II should be sufficient proof for anyone that patriotism is as deep an emotion in the Soviet Union as in the US and can easily be aroused in the face of outside, foreign pressure.

History shows that it is possible to negotiate a mutually desirable agreement with the men of Moscow (or in older times, St. Petersburg). But it also shows that the Soviet peoples are willing to accept almost any sacrifice in the face of foreign hostility, no matter how vicious their own government.

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