How to help the Poles

The West has reacted to the events in Poland with commendable restraint, albeit profound concern. We say commendable because an overreaction in the form of threats or intemperate rhetoric could make it more difficult for the Poles to resume the urgent internal dialogue needed to bring the Polish crisis to an end. But this does not mean the West has no role to play in nudging along such a dialogue. On the contrary, through use of the leverage of economic aid, it is in a position to help Poland keep on its course of political and economic reform. It will, of course, have to use such a lever judiciously.

The Reagan administration, for instance, has under review a sizeable program of farm assistance to Poland, primarily in the form of feed grains. Certainly the American people would not wish to withhold humanitarian aid to the Poles. But there is no reason why it could not be dispensed in measured increments, with an implicit understanding that its flow would be linked to steps of progress toward an accommodation between the Polish government and the free trade union Solidarity. It could be explained to Poland that the American people find it difficult to aid a repressive government which has imposed martial law and which seems to have rolled the clock back.

Then there is the matter of the $27 billion owed by Poland to Western banks and governments. Early this month an agreement was reached to reschedule $2.4 billion of commercial debt due by the end of this month. Under the agreement, the debt would be paid over a seven-year period starting four years after signing of the agreement. From Poland's standpoint this is a desirable arrangement which would permit it once again to obtain short-term credits to finance basic imports. The agreement has not yet been signed, however, and postponing the signing might be a prudent move.

At this point the Polish economy is in shambles. Manufacturing output is down 15 percent over 1980, coal production is 35 million tons less than last year's level, and inflation is running at over 100 percent, with the result that farmers are refusing to sell their produce to the government. It is this chaotic condition - the endemic problem of low productivity in the factories - that in part drove Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to crack down on the union.

Inasmuch as it is hard for the government to produce a final economic plan in present circumstances, the Western financiers ought to proceed cautiously. Even many Poles, including union and government economists, favor firm Western pressure on Poland to ensure it carries out the reforms required to bring about economic recovery. The International Monetary Fund, in particular, if it accepts Poland's application for membership, would be able to dictate tough terms for aid and monitor compliance with strict fiscal reforms. There is no reason for the West to prop up a discredited economic system.

Everything, in short, should depend on where the Poles go from here. In imposing drastic restrictions on civil and union rights - apparently with great reluctance - General Jaruzelski has promised there will be no returning to the ''false practices'' before August 1980 when the democratic movement was launched. ''All the reforms will be continued in the atmosphere of order, businesslike discussion, and discipline,'' he declared.

That promise has to be tested, and the atmosphere at the moment is difficult and unpredictable. But the Poles, who have come so far in their struggle for greater freedom, surely have the resourcefulness, the good sense - and the instructive lessons of their own history - to avert destroying their chances for reform. The nations of the West cannot fight the battle for the Poles. But they can, through carefully managed economic aid and their moral support, help them win it.

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