Reagan's new image as a peacemonger: Will it fly like a dove

By this week it is unmistakable that the White House staff in Washington is trying to redraw the face that Ronald Reagan presents to the outside world. They want him to look like a man of peace.

During the week, members of his staff dropped hints that he is open to the idea of a meeting next year with Moscow's Yuri Andropov.

He opened his first televised press conference in three months with emphasis on his own interest in arms control.

His negotiators arrived in Geneva with new American directions on arms control which have been designed to open a new round of serious talks with the Soviets. This is the first time since Mr. Reagan achieved the presidency that the United States has put forward an arms control proposal that appears to be more substance than propaganda.

The new image of peacemaker was helped by the signing in the Middle East of a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon.

And not once either at his press conference or in any other public appearance during the week did Mr. Reagan make one of those offhand saber-rattling remarks which have caused much of the world, including many a prospective American voter , to think of him as a warmonger. He even carefully avoided labeling the latest Soviet missile tests as a violation of the SALT agreement.

Is all of this cosmetic? Or is there a true change in mood and posture in Ronald Reagan's Washington?

One thing is certain. The political managers who surround the President in the White House believe that the warmonger image is bad politics for Mr. Reagan himself and also for his Republican Party. They want to change it. It follows that the change will be convincing only if it is translated into deeds.

The immediate and most impressive deed is the fact that Paul Nitze returned to his meetings with the Soviets in Geneva on European theater weapons with more leeway than he had a year ago, and that he is authorized to search for and if possible arrive at a formula that could be acceptable both in Moscow and in Washington.

The avoidance of saber-rattling remarks helps to make possible a Reagan-Andropov meeting - if during the year both capitals decide that more good than harm might come out of it. It would not be possible if Mr. Reagan were to go on talking about Moscow being ''the focus of evil'' in the world and stressing his primary interest in weapons.

As long as Mr. Reagan keeps avoiding the inflammatory rhetoric, the meeting may be possible.

The role of peacemaker will also be enhanced if Mr. Reagan's lieutenants can succeed in converting the tentative peace of today between Israel and Lebanon into an actual three-cornered peace including Syria.

That is not going to be easy. Syria was playing hard to get this week. Its government even turned down a proposed visit to Damascus by US envoy Philip Habib.

US Secretary of State George Shultz worked wonders in getting a formula acceptable to both Israel and Lebanon. But nothing comes of it unless or until Syria agrees to join in a general withdrawal of forces. That would require both Syria and the PLO to pull all of their troops out of Lebanon in step with withdrawal of Israeli forces.

There is doubt whether PLO leader Yasser Arafat could pull all PLO troops out. His control seems to be in question. And Syria has a difficult choice to make. At present it is being protected, literally, by the Soviet Union. And the Soviets have an obvious interest in keeping Syria under their wing and influence.

The Soviets undoubtedly want Syria to remain in a state of confrontation with Israel. There is no advantage to Moscow in a general peace in which Syria would gain security by grace of Washington rather than by dint of Soviet weapons. Syria would have to break with Moscow and perhaps even give up its resupply of Soviet weapons in order to join the American plan for peace with Israel.

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