The longer danger

THE last two weeks have provided impressive evidence of what the majority of Western Kremlinologists have been saying - namely, that in spite of all the bristling rhetoric of the times there is no immediate crisis in US-Soviet relations.

What has happened is that both Moscow and Washington have watched oil tankers burning in the Gulf and increasing aggressiveness on the part of Iran and Iraq and done nothing substantial about it. Washington has done nothing substantial for three reasons:

First, if it did the Soviets might want to move in. That could mean a confrontation.

Second, none of the locals have invited the United States to come in - partly because they don't want East-West issues getting involved in their local affairs , and partly because any US action in the area is now (since Lebanon) suspected of being on behalf of Israel.

Third, Israel objects to any US aid to any Arab country. It objects to the one type of US aid that has been requested in this war. Saudi Arabia has asked for 1,200 American Stinger antiaircraft missiles, plus 400 launchers for the missiles, to protect its oil tankers. They are to get 400 missiles and 200 launchers.

Behind the three reasons is an underlying fact. There is no East-West issue. Moscow and Washington have both ''tilted'' toward Iraq since the possibility emerged that it might be overwhelmed by the superior manpower of Iran. But it does not follow from this that the rhetoric of what is being called ''the second cold war'' is harmless.

There is a unique kind of danger. It is that in this present atmosphere of mutual rhetorical abuse both Moscow and Washington are making decisions that will have their effect in future years. Some of those effects can shape the future in unexpected and unintended ways.

For example, there is a purpose behind President Reagan's ''hard line'' attitude toward Moscow. The purpose is to deter the Soviets from more adventures in the third world, and to induce them to come to the bargaining table over weapons.

Is the ''hard line'' having the intended effect? No. On the contrary, the Soviets have just been conducting a new offensive in Afghanistan. They continue to support Cuba and Vietnam. And they have walked away from all arms control talks.

There is a theory behind the ''hard line.'' It is that the US can outbuild the Soviets in an arms race. Part of the theory is that, had there been no SALT I or II agreements, the US could now get ahead of the Soviets in modern weaponry.

If the theory were sound, we could expect the Soviets to change their mind and come back to the bargaining table. But they are not coming back. They have taken up a ''hard line'' of their own. We on the outside do not know, but we can guess, that they are in a mood to make those decisions that could disprove the theoretical base for Mr. Reagan's calculations.

Who comes out ahead in an arms race? The US has the advantage in overall economic strength. Its citizens enjoy roughly three times the income of Soviet citizens. US technology usually leads Soviet technology by several years. But the conversion of wealth into armaments can be more difficult in the United States than in the Soviet Union. Congress and public opinion can slow the process. The production of the new Pershing II missiles for NATO in Europe is behind schedule. The Pentagon is unable to spend all its current appropriations.

The American economy is endangered by the unbalanced budget. The President is under pressure to reduce the arms budget to relieve the deficit. He is resisting. Stock markets are reacting unfavorably. There have been runs on large banks.

Is it possible that the Soviets have consciously and deliberately elected the arms race as a means of weakening the American economy, hence weakening the United States? Is it possible that they will win the arms race because their economy will be able to sustain it better than can the American economy? Is Mr. Reagan's strategy built on a misreading of Soviet capabilities and reactions?

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