ONLY in the months and years ahead will we learn whether President Reagan's summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington - and the treaty with the Soviets on intermediate nuclear forces that his administration concluded - helped to diminish the arms race without compromising Western security. We know now, however, that this summit and the ``zero option'' on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) are part of a package of objectives that the administration said in its first year that it wanted, and claimed that it knew how to achieve. The President formally unveiled his administration's approach on arms reduction in a Nov. 18, 1981, speech to the National Press Club. He said that the United States ``is prepared to cancel its deployment of Pershing 2 and ground launched cruise missiles if the Soviets will dismantle their SS-20, SS-4, and SS-5 missiles.'' Verification is of central importance, and ``our approach to verification will be to emphasize openness and creativity.'' The same basic objectives would apply in negotiations on long-range strategic weapons, where the result must be major reductions to levels that are ``equal and verifiable.'' The change in US arms policy would be symbolized by a new acronym - START replacing SALT.
The Washington summit last week capped a partial consummation of the approach announced in 1981 and pointed toward further achievement. In the messy world of politics, such constancy of purpose and success in end result are quite remarkable.
Against this backdrop, some of the political assessments of Ronald Reagan's policy and, now, achievements are richly ironic. Mr. Reagan was variously accused of and complimented for being insincere. Critics here and abroad said that the Soviet Union could not, of course, agree to the one-sided zero option, and that Reagan sought merely to gull peace-seeking Europeans.
Recently, a cartoonist showed an American ``ultrahawk'' saying: ``Remember when we cheered Reagan's election because he backed a huge defense buildup, so that we could negotiate an arms treaty from a position of strength?'' And then, ruefully: ``I never imagined that he meant it.'' Does modern American politics offer a scene more absurd and uproariously funny than this: Reagan, who came to office derided as a missile-riding cowboy, under attack from the far-right fringe for selling out to the USSR, and criticized by a broader group of conservatives for going muddle-headed - because he did exactly what for six years he had been saying he would do.
From the contest for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, we get a minor summit/INF irony. Robert Dole, long distrusted by many conservatives who see him as the consummate, insufficiently principled Senate dealmaker, apparently chose to court the right by indicating skepticism on INF. This left the senator, however, in the awkward position of distancing himself from a hard-bargained, highly popular deal with the USSR - something his admirers claim a President Dole would be especially adept at achieving.
Many liberals and Democrats have warmly praised Reagan for the INF agreement and progress toward a START treaty. Their endorsement reflects commitment to balanced arms reductions as strong as the President's. At the same time, the endorsement is somewhat ironic, since the agreements achieved on INF and suggested on START have emerged so ineluctably from a basic Reagan approach to foreign and defense policy - one that many Democrats have often found wanting.
The final irony surrounding the summit and its results involves the political status of the Reagan presidency. We have been told repeatedly in recent months that Ronald Reagan is a badly hobbled ``lame duck.''
In fact, ``lame duckism'' has always been a flawed idea. Any president has enormous institutional resources, in his last year as much as in his first. External circumstances do influence the extent to which he can use these resources to get what he wants, but they come together in complex mixes. Right now, apparently, one of the circumstances is that the Soviets want things that Reagan is prepared to provide.
A president's popular standing also helps determine how effectively he can use his institutional resources. Until recently, Reagan's support was seen as unraveling. On Dec. 11, however, just after the summit, a Gallup poll taken for Newsweek found that 62 percent approved his handling of the presidency, 32 percent disapproved it. A Washington Post/ABC News survey of Dec. 11-13 put approval at 58-40. Reagan's support will undoubtedly drop again, as the summit glow fades. His base looks pretty impressive, though, at the end of a generally rocky 1987. The point is that unraveling presidencies can come together pretty quickly when folks stick to their knitting.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.