A well-played hand

I do not know whether President Reagan himself or others on his staff were most responsible, but, whether one person or a team matters less than the fact that in world affairs an American hand has been well played.

The chronology is important to the story because timing is crucial in such affairs.

In this case the immediate play begins on Nov. 18 when the foreign offices of the world were waiting with much anxiety for an event due four days later - the arrival of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Bonn. It was to be Mr. Brezhnev's first appearance in Western Europe since his soldiers invaded Afghanistan. It was coming on the crest of a wave of antinuclear and sometimes anti-American demonstrations which had swept across Western Europe.

On that day President Reagan went before the National Press Club in Washington and proposed to forgo new United States nuclear weapons in Europe if the Soviets would withdraw their own long-range weapons which bear today on every capital in Western Europe.

That proposal could not end the antinuclear demonstrations since more had already been scheduled. But it did take the wind out of Mr. Brezhnev's sails. He arrived in Bonn on Nov. 22 not as the ''good guy'' offering to reduce the size of his arsenals while his opponent was still talking about more weapons. That had been the picture before Nov. 19. Instead he arrived peddling an old and shopworn peace dove while all eyes were turned on Mr. Reagan's shining new dove.

The Reagan move was all the more effective because it was unexpected, a new departure for Mr. Reagan's Washington which had become notorious for brandishing weapons while Europe's heart yearned for prospects of peace. Mr. Reagan had all the advantage of having offered a novelty. It got top, front-page play. In Moscow the press had to treat it seriously.

Then, while Mr. Brezhnev was still in Bonn, Mr. Reagan proved, and not for the first time, that he can get things he wants through a reluctant Congress. He vetoed a compromise budget bill and forced Congress to settle for a three-week extension of existing levels of federal spending.

It is quite a time since we have had in the White House a President who can have his way with a reluctant Congress. Lyndon Johnson could do it before he got bogged down in Vietnam. No President since then has been able to exert as much influence on the Congress as Ronald Reagan has done from the start of his administration, and still can.

Foreign governments prefer to do business with other governments which can manage their parliaments. There is little use in negotiating with a king, prime minister, or president who is likely to be overruled by his legislature. The Russians lost interest in Mr. Carter well before the end of his administration. He could not deliver.

Their reaction to Mr. Reagan's arms proposals of Nov. 22 has been critical but respectful. He probably could deliver on any agreement which his team of negotiators may bring home from the talks which opened this week in Geneva.

The treaty they bring home is up to the Soviets. Mr. Reagan had made an opening offer which, obviously, they will not accept in original form. But they have recognized it as a basis for opening the negotiations. And they have opened.

The bargaining is going to be hard and careful. The US team is headed by Paul Nitze who is more responsible than any one other person for the refusal of Congress to ratify the SALT II treaty. He believed it to be unfair to the US. Any treaty he brings home is likely to be safe and can reasonably be sure of acceptance by both the President and the Congress. It is worth Moscow's while to bargain with Mr. Nitze, provided they want limits on nuclear weapons.

Former President Carter sprang a surprise proposal for massive disarmament on the Soviets at the beginning of his term of office. It took them by surprise. It seemed to them totally unrealistic. They never really took him seriously after that. Mr. Reagan sent advance notice to the Soviets of his opening proposals. His secretary of state, Alexander Haig, made an earlier speech hinting at the details to come.

Accident may have played some part in the timing of it all. The veto of the budget could hardly have been written into the arms proposal scenario. But it all fell into place neatly. So the arms control talks are underway with reasonable prospect of some worthwhile results.

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