The debate over medium-range missiles in Europe is full of irony but also of grave danger to the Atlantic Alliance. NATO's twin-track 1979 decision to negotiate to reduce the Soviet SS-20s and conditionally to deploy 572 counter-missiles risks being derailed on both tracks. It could be a victim of the West German election, Washington rigidity, and skillful Soviet manipulation.
It is time to get back to the basics.
The NATO decision was intended to reassure the Europeans, and especially the Germans. The steady deployment of Soviet SS-20s with three MIRVs on each missile (now totaling 340 missiles, two-thirds aimed at Europe) troubled them in two ways. One was the military imbalance in Europe if NATO had no countermissile. The second was the specter of a ''decoupling'' of the US strategic force from the defense of Europe, under conditions of Soviet strategic parity and its medium-range missile monopoly. The US missiles (108 Pershing IIs and 464 cruise missiles) would both redress the balance and recommit the US, enhancing the deterrent and reassurance.
Negotiation for reductions of Soviet missiles was an alternate route. After a slow start, Reagan scored with his zero-zero option - none for either side. It appealed to a public increasingly worried about nuclear weapons and talk of ''war fighting.''
But the German election has enabled the Soviets to regain the initiative. With Schmidt out, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) left wing now has more influence; SPD candidate Vogel, while not rejecting the NATO decision, is appealing to the West German concern about deployment. The Kohl government sticks with the zero-zero position while hinting at a compromise, which Franz-Josef Strauss, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) leader, has publicly urged.
The Soviets' aims are clear - and also dual. One is to block deployment of NATO missiles and keep their monopoly. They stress the threat to them of the eight-minute warning time of the Pershings, ignoring the similar sevenfold threat to Western Europe from their SS-20s. Their other objective is to divide the US and the Europeans. Their offer to cut back the SS-20s to 162 to match the British and French missiles (rejected by both Britain and France) would still leave them 486 warheads and NATO none, but it suggests flexibility in contrast with the Reagan rigidity. In blatantly seeking to influence the German election, the Soviets have been both soothing and menacing with Gromyko's visit to Bonn and Vogel's to Moscow.
The French are uneasy at the signs of German neutralism and left nationalism. (The SPD campaign slogan is ''In German interests''.) Hence the strong support of Mitterrand for Kohl (a Christian Democrat) against the SPD. He sees any such drift and weakening of the Alliance as a threat to French security and European stability.
While the Europeans, including conservatives, apparently favor some intermediate solution above zero, it is not easy to know just what would satisfy them. Various formulas are possible, such as the tentative compromise worked out by US negotiator Paul Nitze with his Soviet counterpart last summer. It is not apparent why the US should object to any outcome satisfactory to the Europeans. Washington's primary aim should be to maintain the Alliance cohesion and to reassure its European partners. That is not dependent on achieving a zero result. A reasonable balance at various levels would be sufficient both for military and political purposes.
The Reagan insistence on zero-zero probably cloaks an inability within the administration to agree on an alternative. The Defense Department, which apparently wants no agreement, was able to block the Nitze compromise. But stalling tends to play into Soviet hands. If the SPD should win the election, there is a good chance of no agreement and no deployment.
My guess is that the more flexible approach will prevail. One practical effect of Eugene Rostow's removal as head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency has been to put Secretary Shultz more in the center on this issue. The new head of ACDA, who has no grasp of arms control, is under his direction. And Nitze has no rival in the administration in expertise and experience in this field. The leverage of Shultz and Nitze is virtually irresistible if they choose to use it to defeat the Defense hardliners.
The impending trip of Vice-President Bush to seven European capitals could provide the basis for a shift to a more flexible line. He will surely return with a report that the Europeans favor an intermediate solution. The Soviets will probably make no agreement until convinced that their manipulation of German opinion will not succeed. If that fails, then they do seem most anxious to head off, if possible, the deployment of the Pershing II, and less concerned about the cruise missile which would take several hours reaching its target. Thus they might then settle down to hard bargaining.