Changing perceptions

A month ago the Reagan administration sounded as though we were back in the roughest days of the "cold war". The ides of March seem to have caused, or coincided with, changing perceptions.

Surface signs and signals show a tacit tentative deal between Washington and the Kremlin involving El Salvador, Cuba, and Poland. The Soviets have assured Washington that the maneuvers scheduled to include Poland this week will not turn into a military occupation of Poland similar to the existing Soviet military occupation of East Germany.

In return Washington has downgraded the El Salvador affair and has stated officially that the United States has no intention of putting its own combat troops into El Salvador. This tacitly washes out the threat of late February to take direct punitive action against Cuba if the flow of guns from Cuba to El Salvador continues.

Implicit in this tacit deal is mutual recognition that the United States is sensitive to European intervention in Central America and that the Soviet Union is sensitive to US intervention in Eastern Europe. Washington wants the Polish people to be treated considerately by Moscow. Moscow wants Cuba to be allowed to pursue its special relationship with Moscow. In effect, Washington has said it will leave Fidel Castro alone if the Soviets refrain from beating up the Poles.

The other side of the same coin is that Moscow will restrain its own natural instinct to stir up anti-US activities in Central America provided the US restrains its equally natural inclination to encourage anti-Soviet movements in Eastern Europe.

There may even be an overtone of an Afghan angle to all this. After all, the US wants very much to have Moscow pull its troops out of Afghanistan, but Moscow would consider itself dangerously threatened if the US were to send substantial numbers of weapons to the Afghan rebels. That, of course, is one countermove the US could make if Moscow continued to encourage anti-US movements throughout much of Central America.

In the background is an even more powerful weapon the US could use against Moscow. As yet the US has been careful to avoid giving military aid to China. It could do so any time it chooses. The only limit would be China's willingness to receive such aid. In Moscow such aid from the US to China might well be considered a hostile act. It would certainly be unfriendly because it presumably would cause the Soviets to man their Chinese frontier with even larger Soviet forces than they deploy there now. About a fourth of the Soviet Union's military power is on its Chinese frontier.

There is no hint of an intention by the Reagan administration to play that particular China card. It is in reserve, to be used some day if necessary, but certainly not now and certainly not at all if the ultimate purpose is to reduce the level of tension in East-West relations.

The possibility of movement in that direction is not yet ruled out. On the contrary, it has been kept as one option by the relative restraint in parts of the new US arms budget. Add that there is one fairly urgent reason for opening a new dialogue between Washington and Moscow, the desire of the American farming community to resume shipping grain to the Soviet Union. The grain-producing states all voted for Mr. Reagan in the last election partially because he seemed to promise them a repeal of the embargo on US grain to the Soviets.

The grain embargo is still in force. US grain goes to the Soviets now only within the terms of the existing grain contract. If that is terminated at the end of the grain contract year, October, and if the embargo is then still in force, there would be no US grain going to the Soviets. That would be highly unpopular in the grain states. The farmers want a new grain contract, plus repeal of the embargo, in order to assure a maximum market for surplus US grains.

If there is to be a new grain agreement with the Soviets talks should begin almost at once.

Formal talks between Moscow and Washington are not yet in sight. But the tension which existed at the peak of the El Salvador affair has been relaxed and a tacit negotiation has taken place during that affair.

If the Reagan administration had wanted to maintain a high level of tension in the East-West relationship it would have provided much more funds for immediate ready military forces. Instead, it put more emphasis on long-term procurement of new weapons. Also it would not have defused the El Salvador affair. It would almost be justified to say -- despite some tough anti-Soviet rhetoric by Secretary of State Haig -- that the US-USSR relationship is back to nor mal, after a two-month rough passage.

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