Did the general mean it?

Does General Wojciech Jaruzelski mean what he says? That is the unanswered question many Westerners ask as they watch with dismay the prolongation of military rule in Poland. On Christmas Eve General Jaruzelski sought to persuade his anguished countrymen that there the process of ''democratization'' and ''renewal'' begun last year would continue. ''There will be no military dictatorship in socialist Poland,'' he declared.

It remains for the general to demonstrate the sincerity of these words. Many observers have sought to give him the benefit of the doubt, speculating that he may be more of a Polish patriot and nationalist than minion of the Soviet communists. But this image suffers severe strain in the face of continued incarceration of thousands of union activists and intellectuals, and persisting reports of inhumane conditions in detention camps and brutal beatings of priests and others. Until martial law is lifted or at least mitigated and brutality checked, widespread skepticism will persist.

After all that has happened it will be extremely difficult to convince Poles that the imposition of military rule is in fact the lesser of two evils as General Jaruzelski claims. The Polish military had long enjoyed popular respect; indeed it was the only institution of the communist state that commanded such loyalty. But martial law would seem to have discredited the authority of the Polish army altogether. In fairness, it appears to be the internal security forces who are largely responsible for the most brutal acts. But the onus is on General Jaruzelski to control the situation. He has it in his hands to give practical meaning to his moderate words.

Despite the turbulence and uncertainty, the possibility of a negotiated political settlement must still not be ruled out, even though General Jaruzelski has lost moral authority in the eye of Poles. It may be true, as Secretary of State Haig says, that martial law is not working and the danger of Soviet military intervention grows. But it is also true that the only logical way out of the crisis is negotiation and compromise - even from the standpoint of the rulers in Warsaw and Moscow. For how can Poland function when the whole populace is angry? How can it climb out of its economic morass and rebuild the economy when Poles won't work? The unrelenting holdout of some 1,100 coal miners protesting martial law hints at the determination of Poles to continue their passive resistance.

In this situation the West appears to be reacting with a certain ambivalence. President Reagan, indignant at the military suppression, has given rousing moral support to the Polish people and imposed some minor sanctions. But he has cautiously drawn back from the kind of measures which would severely hurt Poland or - as some in the administration would like - the Soviet Union. Understandably so, for such action risks a US rupture with the NATO allies. Many West Europeans believe that too tough a course would only drive Poland further into the embrace of Moscow, heighten tensions in Europe, and threaten another period of cold war.

How much pressure the West should or should not apply is arguable. Certainly the views of the West Europeans, who have seen the political and economic gains of a more moderate approach toward Eastern Europe , deserve weight. In any case , the West must not shy from using an economic carrot and stick to press both sides in Poland away from violent confrontation and toward peaceful talks - a goal being quietly pursued by the Roman Catholic Church. General Jaruzelski should not be let off the hook until he shows his good faith; neither should Solidarity unionists be misled into believing the West will support the most extreme of their demands, even to the point of destroying relations with Moscow. The Russians, for their part, should be left with no illusions about the consequences to East-West ties if the Polish reform movement is thoroughly suppressed.

It is a fine and difficult line to tread.

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