THE Bush administration is sending mixed signals on its policy toward the Soviet Union and its views of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms. Some see this as reflecting disarray in President Bush's policymaking circle. We see it as healthy debate - up to a point. After sitting on the fence, the administration by and large has come to embrace perestroika. Mr. Gorbachev's reforms, the dominant thinking goes, are sincere, and they offer a historic opportunity to put superpower relations on a better footing - in the current phrase, to ``end the cold war.'' This calculation underlies recent speeches by Secretary of State James Baker extending an open hand to Moscow. Mr. Bush endorsed this view by proposing the seaborne summit next month.
But the administration hasn't been speaking with one voice. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney has offered a gloomy assessment of Gorbachev's prospects. Other officials tapping the brake include Vice President Quayle, deputy national security adviser Robert Gates, and Paul Wolfowitz, under secretary of defense for policy. After the minisummit was announced, Mr. Wolfowitz gave a speech critical of continued Soviet involvement in regional conflicts.
It's useful for Bush to hear a diversity of opinions on the momentous developments in the East bloc and their implications for United States policy.
But how much should an administration air its differences publicly? That's a perennial Washington question. Officials with contrasting views need to contribute to the public discussion of great issues. And it might be useful at times for an administration publicly to play ``nice cop, tough cop'' with Moscow.
Beyond a point, though, policymaking can't be two-faced. A president shouldn't exercise thought control over subordinates, but he must always make clear who has the final word. And once a decision is reached, subordinates must be team players.
An administration gets in trouble when dissenters must go public because their views are shielded from the president. This happened at times under President Reagan. It's hoped that Bush watched and learned.