Washington — ``We've got them right where they want us.'' That's how Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association, sums up the dilemma facing the United States and its Western allies because of a new Soviet arms control proposal.
The proposal would remove certain kinds of nuclear weapons from Europe. That is a proposition that the West claims to favor.
But is the West willing to pay the tab for beefing up its conventional forces in Europe to match bigger and more heavily armed East-bloc armies?
Moreover, does the West - despite its rhetoric - really want to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons?
The West has been ruminating over those sorts of hard questions for years. Now, the issues have suddenly been thrust to the very center of the arms control debate by the new Soviet proposals, which are being debated within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Moscow is calling for the US and the Soviet Union to remove all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. These weapons have a range between 600 and 3,400 miles.
In addition, the Soviets say they are willing to eliminate other, shorter-range nuclear missiles, with a range of 300 to 600 miles.
The proposals would not lead to a ``nuclear-free Europe,'' as significant numbers of nuclear weapons would remain on the Continent. Nor would they reduce the number of long-range strategic missiles in the Soviet, American, British, and French arsenals. And the superpowers have yet to agree on how to verify any agreement.
But the latest proposals might provide the basis for the first arms control agreement of the Reagan administration and justify a summit meeting later this year between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The proposals are forcing the West to confront the question of whether Europe will really be more secure with fewer nuclear weapons.
Current NATO strategy holds that a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe would first be met with conventional forces, but that the West might turn to nuclear retaliation if overwhelmed by East-bloc forces.
Until recent years, that policy was justified chiefly on the basis of cost, as it is cheaper to build nuclear weapons than keep standing armies; and on deterrence, because any attack on Europe could escalate into full-blown nuclear war.
At the same time the West has been relying on nuclear weapons, it has been claiming to want to see their numbers reduced.
The new Soviet proposals, according to a number of US officials and analysts inside and outside government, raise questions about NATO's willingness to pay for nonnuclear defenses and the depth of allied commitment to the alliance's nuclear deterrence policy.
The Soviet offer ``has really handed us a big problem of alliance management,'' Mr. Mendelsohn says.
Any new agreement based on the Soviet proposals would ``help focus attention on the need to redress the real and perceived imbalances [between East-bloc and Western forces] and our need to make progress in conventional arms control,'' says Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on conventional forces and alliance defense.
Can NATO really fashion a credible nonnuclear defense policy at a cost that member nations would find acceptable?
Some analysts are skeptical. John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of a recent book on conventional deterrence in Europe, says, ``The technology is not there to significantly alter the conventional balance. If you're going to improve NATO's conventional forces you have to buy more manpower. The argument that you can buy defense on the cheap in Europe is just plain wrong.''
Who would pay the tab?
Western European countries already ``do a lot,'' says a Senate source. But, he adds, ``There's more they can do.''
Some say the US could help, too.
``The US could commit a lot more of its overall defense budget to improving conventional forces, as opposed to spending so much on strategic forces,'' one Senate source argues.
But that would require some difficult budget decisions. The Senate source notes that the proposed 1988 budget for the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative is, at $5.8 billion, bigger than the entire US Army research-and-development budget of $5.4 billion.
Moreover, Mr. Mearsheimer says, even if the money can be found to bolster NATO's conventional forces, it is unclear where the manpower will come from.
In 1982, he notes, West Germany had 290,000 recruits for the federal defense forces. This year, the number is expected to be 225,000. By 1994, it is projected to fall to only 140,000.