Power plays at work

This has been a week for watching the way power works. The United States has been deploying air and sea power into both North Africa and Central America to support Washington's policies in those two areas. The evidence is tentative at this stage, but what there is indicates that both operations are so far working as intended.

Also noteworthy on the world stage this week was another effort by Moscow's Yuri Andropov to push and cajole the top-heavy bureaucracy of the Soviet Union into self-reform. There is little reason to think that this latest effort will have any more success than his earlier efforts.

Deployment of US military power into the North Africa theater dates from mid-July, when Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya opened a new drive southward into Chad. Planes from the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower tangled in a nonlethal encounter with two Libyan planes over the Gulf of Sidra on Aug. 1.

On Aug. 6, two US Air Force AWACS (airborne warning and control system planes) supported by appropriate fighter escorts and supply transports flew from US bases to Sudan. They were on station in Sudan from Aug. 8.

Colonel Qaddafi's forces overran the northern Chad oasis of Faya-Largeau two days later, on Aug. 10. But that was also the day when French-backed Chadian forces recaptured the oasis of Oum Chalouba to the southeast of Faya-Largeau and the French took up another blocking position at Salal, which lies across the desert trace running southward from Faya-Largeau to the Chad capital of N'Djamena.

Since Aug. 10 the combined French-US deployments seem to be doing their intended work. Qaddafi's Libyan forces and the Chad rebels he is supporting have done nothing further. Instead of moving farther south, the Libyan leader has consented to parley with the French. The present expectation is that Colonel Qaddafi will settle down and be satisfied with northern Chad.

In other words, prompt deployment of US sea and air power has played a role in North Africa in checking and restraining the ever-ambitious and restless leader of Libya's revolutionary government. The shaky Chad government was probably doomed to extinction without French-US intervention. Today it enjoys reasonable prospects of survival.

Substantial deployment of US air and sea forces into the Central American theater began on July 21, when the aircraft carrier USS Ranger left its moorings off San Diego and headed for the Pacific Ocean side of Nicaragua. She was on station off Nicaragua with seven escorts by July 25.

Since then two aircraft carrier battle groups and a third battleship group have been patrolling off Nicaragua. Thus Nicaragua has been bracketed for nearly a month now by enough firepower to pulverize every city, town, and village within its borders.

Add that, beginning at the same time, air transports from the US have been ferrying US Army and US Marine Corps units into Honduras next door to Nicaragua.

This week President Reagan went to La Paz, Mexico, for a chat with Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid-Hurtado. The Mexican President is in frequent consultation with the ruling Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The parleying has begun in this area, too.

Latest reports from the fighting fronts in neighboring El Salvador would seem to indicate that US military activity in the neighborhood has had a spill-over influence on the course of the civil war in that country. Government units trained by the US have been more active, and reportedly more successful of late. And rebel forces are said to be tending to pull away from combat.

The story in both Central America and North Africa is one of classic power projection in support of diplomatic policy.

In both cases the US was able to move substantial and probably decisive force into unsettled situations and do it quickly and effectively. The speed of the two operations is bound to be noted in all capitals.

Another way of saying the above is that the US possesses a remarkable and unequaled capability of putting impressive military power where it chooses. Mr. Reagan has used this capability in both Central America and North Africa. His chances of using it successfully in both cases are impressive. He will probably win both games. The Soviets could not match Mr. Reagan in these areas.

Monday of this week witnessed an unusual scene in the offices of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow. Yuri Andropov, new party chief and government leader, 10 months in office, summoned the veteran leaders of the party and pleaded with them to help him decentralize the Soviet economy.

He talked about the importance of changes ''in planning, management, and the economic mechanism.'' He said that in the past ''we were not vigorous enough.'' He said that ''now we must make up for what we have lost.''

In other words he was begging the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union to purge itself of waste, inefficiency - and jobs. And it is a reasonable guess that he was talking to hard hearts.

Decentralization of the Soviet economy is something the best Soviet economics have been urging for years. But central control of the economy is the biggest make-work project ever invented by man.

Can a party purge itself? Does Mr. Andropov have the strength and the time to do the impossible?

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