Peoria and the pipeline

He said it on the political hustings in Peoria. But that is no reason not to welcome President Reagan's comment that he would ''enthusiastically consider'' any proposals to lift the American sanctions on the Siberian natural gas pipeline and replace them with sanctions less damaging to European and US manufacturers. It is clear the United States must sooner or later back down on the pipeline affair - or further roil relations in the Atlantic alliance. If the President is positioning himself for a face-saving way out of the situation, that is all to the good.

But was Mr. Reagan's statement policy or politics?

In America it is sometimes hard to separate one from the other, and in this case there is a lot of politics involved. Mr. Reagan is busy wooing distressed farmers in the Midwest as Nov. 2 rolls around. This, his own people privately admit, is why he announced that the US would be willing to sell 23 million metric tons of grain to the Russians. This is why he announced the Agriculture Department would make available

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.5 billion in credits to spur farm exports to developing nations.

The President is also wooing Peoria, which is heavily dependent on the Caterpillar Tractor Company and where Robert Michel, House Republican leader, is in a tough fight for reelection. Caterpillar has been hard hit by Mr. Reagan's sanctions on the pipeline; it had a contract to sell millions of dollars' worth of equipment for the project. So it was politically advantageous to hint that the White House is open to a removal of the ban.

It was also, perhaps, diplomatically prudent - an effort to cover US embarrassment over the contrast between grain and pipeline moves. The West Europeans accuse the US of flagrant inconsistency when, on the one hand, it lectures Europe for supplying the Russians with advanced pipeline equipment and, on the other, sells the same Russians huge quantities of grain. Mr. Reagan did not retreat from his argument that Europe was making itself dangerously dependent on the Soviet Union, but his public statement on finding other alternatives to the present pipeline sanctions seemed a more conciliatory stance.

The question is what alternatives there are. Not wishing to exacerbate tensions in the alliance, the Germans and others are quietly looking for ways to get Mr. Reagan off the pipeline hook - by tightening export credits for the Soviet Union, for instance, and devising new ground rules for East-West trade. Enmeshed in the whole affair are also other sticky economic issues - European farm subsidies, to name one - and these must be dealt with as well.

Despite the disagreements, however, the question is no longer whether President Reagan will back down from his mistaken pipeline policy - but how he can do it without looking as if he is doing it. Whatever the political nuances of the statement in Peoria, it does seem to indicate that the President is ready for compromise. His aides may deny so - but that, too, is good politics.

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