Policy pavane: one step forward and three steps back

Moscow moved to regain the propaganda advantage over Washington this week - even while President Ronald Reagan's foreign policies were being thrice repudiated at home and his Middle East policy continued to be frustrated.

The most dramatic event of the week was the new Soviet proposal on nuclear weapons for Europe. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov offered, or appeared to offer, equality between the Soviet Union and the NATO alliance in European theater nuclear warheads.

Almost simultaneously Congress was turning against Mr. Reagan's ''secret war'' on Nicaragua and calling for a nuclear freeze; and this country's Roman Catholic bishops were in effect endorsing the nuclear freeze, which the President has long opposed.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State George Shultz was finding that shuttle diplomacy had its complications when faced with rigidly held and conflicting positions.

The most interesting angle in the Andropov proposal for European-based missiles was the concept of equality in warheads. This idea was also the centerpiece in the recent report in Washington of the presidential commission on strategic weapons, a report President Reagan has adopted. The Moscow proposal appeared to move Soviet thinking in the same direction as the new Washington thinking.

The White House welcomed this change in the Soviet position.

It seemed to narrow the difference between existing Soviet and US positions on weapons. It thus kept open the possibility for an agreement on intermediate-range weapons before - or soon after - the deployment of new American missiles in Europe, a deployment that is scheduled to begin later this year.

The Soviet move was pleasing to the ears of NATO governments in Europe. They hope that an arms control agreement can either prevent deployment of the new US Pershing II and cruise missiles on their soil, or at least keep the deployment to a minimum.

There is still a big gap to be closed before any agreement would be possible.

Mr. Andropov speaks of ''equality'' in terms of balancing Soviet weapons against the collection of nuclear weapons possessed by NATO countries. This includes British and French nuclear weapons. Mr. Reagan is insisting on equality between US and Soviet weapons. This would give the NATO side an advantage.

Moscow does not trust its ''allies'' with nuclear weapons. Washington's allies already have them. A lot of negotiating will be necessary to find a way around this inequality - if it can be found.

Also unresolved as yet is the issue of what happens if Moscow insists on moving some of its mobile SS-20 missiles out of the European part of the Soviet Union onto the far side of the Ural Mountains, rather than scrapping them.

But Moscow gets credit for what may be the biggest single narrowing of the gap between US and Soviet positions on nuclear arms since Mr. Reagan reached the White House. It is likely to give Moscow a propaganda bonus in Europe.

Back in the United States, meanwhile, the assembled bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest single denomination in America with some 52 million communicants, adopted by a vote of 238 to 9 a ''pastoral letter'' on nuclear weapons that in effect repudiated the military policies of the Reagan administration.

The letter said that: ''We feel that our world and nation are headed in the wrong direction.''

The letter recognized the right of self-defense but repudiated the idea of any ''first strike'' or ''first use'' of nuclear weapons. It repudiated the present policy of retaliation. It rejected the idea that self-defense could permit or justify ''the use of weapons which kill indiscriminately and threaten whole societies.''

The letter supported the idea of a ''nuclear freeze.'' It accepted the idea of deploying weapons for purposes of nuclear deterrence only if the deployment is linked to serious arms reduction talks.

The Reagan administration lobbied against many of the positions taken up by the letter. Some of them were modified. But the context of the vote gave the decision special importance. It means that, in the opinion of almost the entire Catholic episcopacy in America, the Reagan administration has its priorities wrong on the subject of war and weapons.

''The first imperative,'' the bishops say, ''is to prevent any use of nuclear weapons.''

The action of the House Select Committee on Intelligence did not have the same weight and possible effect on future policy as the vote of the Catholic bishops, but it was a word of warning to Mr. Reagan that his ''secret war'' against the government of Nicaragua is in trouble.

The nine Democrats on the committee voted to bar further funds for attack on the Nicaraguan government. The five Republicans supported the President. Republicans have the majority on the companion committee in the Senate.

It seems unlikely that the whole Congress will tie the President's hands on the subject of Nicaragua. However, there is nothing approaching a general consensus favoring the President's policies for Central America. It is becoming a partisan issue. The Democrats are moving with what appears, according to recent polls, to be the inclination in public opinion.

In the Middle East, Secretary of State Shultz went into his second week of shuttle diplomacy aimed at maneuvering the Israeli and Syrian troops out of Lebanon. He had arrived in the area on April 24. He has done the usual shuttling between Jerusalem and Beirut. He has indicated a willingness to go to Damascus to talk to the Syrians.

At time of writing, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was still insisting on having some Israeli troops patrol in southern Lebanon and still demanding an ''open'' border with Lebanon, meaning that southern Lebanon would be open to Israeli trade and tourism.

Behind the scenes the Israelis were reported to be asking for American concessions as a possible price for giving in on troops and trade in southern Lebanon. They want technical help and US blueprints for building military aircraft for sale on world markets. And they apparently want the revival of a military agreement that was negotiated early in the Reagan administration and repudiated soon thereafter when Israel announced annexation of the Golan Heights. The agreement would, if revived, help coordinate Israeli and American armed forces for operations in the Middle East.

In other words, there are two negotiations going on. One is on the surface between Israel and Lebanon. The other, below the surface, is over what price the US will pay to Israel for the withdrawal of Israel's military forces from Lebanon.

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