President Reagan in Washington probably has the ability now, this week, to decide the political future of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and his ''reformist'' (by Polish standards) wing of the Polish Communist Party.
Depending on what the American President does in Washington, the general in Warsaw can and may survive as political leader of Poland or be deposed and be replaced by someone picked by Moscow from the hard-line faction of the Polish party.
The general was in trouble inside his own Communist Party and in Moscow before the arrival of Pope John Paul II. It surfaced during the week of May 10 in the form of an article in the Soviet ideological magazine New Times. It was a sharp criticism specifically aimed at Mieczyslaw Rakowski, a Polish deputy prime minister and political associate of General Jaruzelski. It was viewed in political circles as being aimed obliquely at the general. It was probably a rebuke to him for having agreed to permit the visit of the Pope.
The visit has now taken place. What did General Jaruzelski get out of it?
He got nothing out of the externals of the visit itself. It was a massive demonstration of the personal popularity of the Pope, and the equal unpopularity of the regime. If nothing more comes out of it than that, then the general's tenure in office is likely to be brief. The hard-line, orthodox wing of the party will presumably take over and see to it that nothing like the Pope's visit ever happens again.
But suppose that through the mediation of the Vatican a series of back-and-forth concessions takes place between the general's regime in Warsaw and Washington. The general has already hinted at a possible lifting of martial law on July 22, Poland's national holiday.
Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Carter, suggests an immediate lifting of the ban on Polish fishing in American waters as evidence of US willingness to improve relations with the Polish regime on a reciprocal basis.
The President on Monday of this week received John Cardinal Krol, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia. The cardinal is of Polish ancestry and has been active in US-Polish relations. He is a longtime, personal friend of the Pope. He went with the Pope on the Polish trip. It may be assumed that he explained the Pope's views on the subject to the President.
If through Vatican mediation such a process of mutual concessions takes place - an easing of martial law, release of political prisoners, cancellation of political trials, improved respect for civil rights on the part of the Polish government, lifting of sanctions by the US - then the general would have gained time to try to work out an improvement in Poland's economy.
But then Moscow would have gained something, too. Poland's economic troubles are a present drain on the Soviet economy. An improvement in Poland's economy brought about with US help would ease a burden on the Soviet economy.
The President can make a contrary decision. He can refuse to lift sanctions, refuse to have any part in the mediation which the Pope has set in motion.
The consequences of taking that road are different. A tougher regime in Warsaw would presumably proceed with purge trials, impose heavier control on the Polish people, deny them any form of political expression, probably reopen political warfare against the Catholic church in Poland.
The process might end there. It could go much further. That could mean an active campaign of resistance on the model of the campaign the Poles conducted against the Germans during World War II. It could mean civil war.
Which way should the President go?
The road the Pope has opened would not lead to true liberation of the Polish people. It would be like arranging for an easier life in prison for a prisoner. The Polish people would continue to live behind the Soviet military frontier. But they would be alive, and better treated and allowed at least to have their own preferred religion for consolation.
The other road of sanctions means a harder, more dangerous life for the Polish people. Many would probably pay with their lives for the satisfaction of going down fighting. And in the process they would probably tie down anywhere from 10 to 15 divisions of the Soviet Army. Afghanistan ties down 10 Soviet divisions. Poland has twice the population of Afghanistan.
Mr. Reagan will choose between these two roads.