Aid the Polish experiment

The United States does well to respond to the deepening economic crisis in Poland. The Reagan administration has announced that it will supply the Poles with $29 million in surplus dairy products. Another $50 million may be forthcoming early next year. Behind the move is concern in Washington that the situation might deteriorate into civil disorders which even the Polish Army would not be able to cope with.

Will such aid be adequate, however? Given the worsening economic plight of Poland and the Herculean task of reforming the system after decades of mismanagement, it is clear that Poland is going to require continued large infusions of aid from both East and West. It is not clear, however, whether President Reagan has himself yet come to grips with the ''Polish question'' and the opportunity which he has to help influence events in constructive directions. So far, the administration has operated on a limited, ad hoc basis. The need is for long-range planning.

There may not be much enthusiasm in the White House - or in Congress, for that matter - for pouring more millions into Poland when the country already is wisely. It is unreasonable to expect the Poles to overcome the legacy of the past quickly, but certainly it is possible to link Western assistance with step-by-step reforms in the system - and with the understanding that the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact allies continue to bear the major burden. Many Poles themselves would in fact welcome the kind of financial discipline which Western aid would require.

Some may ask why the United States should help a communist country. In the present circumstances - with Poles beginning to suffer real hardship - simple humanitarianism is called for. But there are other arguments as well. Paramount among them is that the West has a vital stake in the Polish experiment - an experiment which, if it succeeds, will mean greater democracy and a more efficient economic system in Poland. That would be an enormous advance for human rights and a geopolitical gain for the West. Conversely, if the economy reaches a point of total collapse, leading to civil chaos, the Russians might finally feel forced to abandon their posture of restraint and move in. Stabilizing Poland is thus, paradoxically, in the interest of both superpowers.

There are also good commercial reasons for aid. Poland, for all its problems , offers attractive prospects to Western traders. It is potentially the richest country in Eastern Europe, with huge mineral reserves and a strong industrial base. It also offers a fairly permanent market for American feed grains because of poor agricultural conditions. In this connection, the Polish currency paid for PL 480 food assistance which the US provides could perhaps be used to promote farm reforms - financing consolidation of private land holdings, for instance.

There is, in short, much to be thought about in the West as Poland's quiet revolution struggles from one crisis to another. Some are beginning to doubt the Poles will ever put their house in order. Certainly this is something they must do themselves. No one can do it for them. But the West can help temper the confrontations and ease tensions by showing its readiness to step in with substantial, long-term assistance. It would be a pity if the battle were lost for lack of Western imagination and foresight.

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