President Reagan is having trouble with the Senate over an appointment not because of the central personality involved, Kenneth L. Adelman, but because he himself has never yet succeeded in deciding whether he really does want an arms control agreement with the Soviets.
Mr. Adelman is a bright young man (age 36) with considerable experience in government. His first tour of duty in Washington was with the VISTA program, then with the Agency for International Development where he became recognized as a specialist in African affairs. During the Ford administration he was a special assistant to Donald Rumsfeld when Mr. Rumsfeld was secretary of defense. In that phase Mr. Adelman got interested in weapons and became a vigorous advocate of more American strategic weapons.
He came back to government once more as deputy to the present United States ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick. He was summoned from that post to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency after President Reagan dismissed its previous director, Eugene Rostow.
His views as expressed in various publications over these years have tended to the ''hawkish'' side, but he is generally regarded as scholarly. He has contributed eight articles to this newspaper on subjects ranging through Africa, the Helsinki Accords, Soviet economics, and the Iran-Iraq war. He claimed when he first appeared before the Senate committee for confirmation hearings that he did not have any background knowledge of or fixed views on arms control. He later said that he favored arms control.
His original plea of ignorance on the subject which he would be dealing with if confirmed was regarded by some members of the Senate committee as curious. They wanted to know why the President should choose for his supposedly top adviser on arms control (at a time when the subject is uppermost in US foreign policy) a person who claims ignorance and unshaped views on that subject.
The President claims that he favors an arms control agreement with the Soviets. Vice-President George Bush has just been on a trip through Western Europe asserting the strong desire of the administration for such an agreement. The President has said that while he prefers the ''zero-zero'' option for nuclear weapons in Europe, he is willing to think in terms of an ''interim'' arrangement. That supposedly suggests flexibility in the American bargaining position.
But the essential fact is that Mr. Reagan is under conflicting pressures on the subject.
On the one hand, he is being told by his European experts that he must be seen to be seeking an agreement if the European allies are to go ahead with the existing NATO plan to deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe by the end of this year. A convincing display of American willingness to bargain seriously is apparently a prerequisite to acceptance of the weapons by the allies.
On the other hand, the Defense Department has adopted a position in opposition to the tentative agreement on European theater weapons which US and Soviet chief negotiators Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinsky worked out last July. Behind the opposition to that agreement is a strong disapproval over on the right wing of the Reagan political constituency of any dealing with the Soviets at all.
The right-wing ''hawks'' most particularly do not want any arms agreement because it would inevitably reduce and limit the size of the Reagan rearmament program.
My colleague Anthony Lewis of the New York Times calls the Adelman appointment ''a signal of frivolousness.'' I would say rather that it advertises the fact that the President is under conflicting pressures and chose as a way out an appointment which discloses the very fact that he is not ready to decide whether to shun or to seek an arms control agreement with the Soviets.
Had he wanted such an agreement, provided of course that it can be had in fair and reasonable terms, he would certainly have selected for the arms control post in his administration a man of general and respected knowledge of and experience in this highly complex subject. Mr. Adelman by his own testimony has no such knowledge or experience. He is a former student of and a subsequent deputy to Mrs. Kirkpatrick whose political associations are with the right wing and the anti-negotiation element in the Reagan political background.
The Adelman choice is reassuring to the anti-negotiation ''hawks.'' It can but be puzzling and disconcerting to the European allies who want negotiations. It proves that Mr. Reagan is not ready to tackle the subject of possible arms control seriously.