How Haig sees it

Since we urged yesterday that the United States respond cautiously but open-mindedly to Leonid Brezhnev's latest overtures for a dialogue, it is only fair to catch up with the deed already done. Secretary of State Alexander Haig says that the US is "very interested" in the Soviet proposal for a summit meeting and that the Brezhnev speech to the party congress contains "some new and remarkable innovations" which will be carefully studied. Such a forthcoming response is precisely what is needed to begin cutting through the layers of mutual recrimination that now envelop East-West relations -- and to avert a new and dangerous cold war.

Mr. Haig's comments are all the more significant in light of the harsh tone adopted toward Moscow with the advent of the Reagan presidency, a tone that has sometimes seemed exaggerated and out of proportion to realities. This suggests that the tough US posture is designed as much for home political consumption as for communist ears.

Despite impressions conveyed in Washington, the political and diplomatic position of the West has not deteriorated vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. On the contrary, from the Kremlin's vantage point it is the Russians who ought to be the more worried: by the rumblings of revolt in Eastern Europe, by their failure to put down the Afghan independence fight, by their inability to exploit new opportunities for expansion in the Middle East and Africa, by the spoiling of detente and the enhanced determination of the West to strenghten its defenses, and -- not least of all -- by their beleaguered economy. It is no wonder that Mr. Brezhnev wants to alleviate the pressures through a return to arms control talks and a repair of East-West ties. While treading gingerly, therefore, Mr. Haig is right to probe the Soviet proposals and to seize the opportunity, if it proves that, for constructive dialogue.

The Haig diplomacy so far is marked in fact by some other positive elements deserving mention: the affirmation of the US agreement with Iran on the hostages , the prudent silence on China and other issues until policies can be examined and worked out, the shoring up of America's ties with its allies. The latter is especially noteworthy. The Carter, Ford, and Nixon administrations, it will be recalled, for all their good intentions, managed to roil relations with Western Europe either through failure to arrive at decisions collectively or because (in President Carter's case) of unpredictable changes of policy.

Secretary Haig, with his NATO experience, looks to be setting off on the right foot. He has already pleased the hard-to-please French by explicitly acknowledging their independent foreign policy and expressing appreciation for the contribution they make to allied defenses. From Washington, too, comes word that Mr. Haig has set no time limits on State Department consultations with the many West European leaders trooping in to talk with the new US government. Orders are out to schedule as much time as needed for thoroughgoing discussions. There are some deep problems to be ironed out with America's friends in NATO and the European Community, but this visible sensitivity and accommodation augurs well for a more cooperative and productive relationship in the future.

On the substance of issues, it is too soon, of course, to make any judgments. The first test of the "new look" Reagan foreign policy is shaping up in troubled El Salvador. It is far from clear how the US intends to react to what it says is massive Cuban involvement in the civil war there. It is to be hoped, however , that the heavy drumbeat of accusations against Moscow and Cuba are meant primarily to reduce the flow of communist arms to El Salvador (the flow reportedly has subsided) and that Mr. Haig will consider the increase of American military aid or intervention there with the utmost caution and restraint. The situation is extremely complex and, unless the US is prepared to back a ruthless suppression of the leftist opposition -- which includes noncommunists as well as avowed Marxists -- its efforts must be bent toward a negotiated not armed solution, toward reform not preserving the status quo.

There is reason to think that Secretary Haig, while he pulls no punches about communist aggression, is committed to the path of peaceful diplomacy. The need now is to carve it out.

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