As Europe readies for missiles, the mood gets curiouser

As Moscow tries to regain the peace initiative in European public opinion, this continent finds itself in a curious in-between missile season. The public debate exhibits both an end-spurt intensity and suspended animation while Europe waits out this year's last round of Euromissile arms control talks in Geneva.

Thus among other anomalies:

* Western Europe seems to be treating the latest Soviet Euromissile offer - in the wake of the Soviet shooting down of the Korean airliner - rather more as a propaganda exercise than Moscow is used to.

* The US, however, is hardly getting any more attention for its reported softening of its Euromissile position at the negotiating table.

* Italy has postponed its own year-end stationing of cruise missiles until next spring - but the West Germans are not complaining.

* The European antinuclear movement has been totally upstaged by the tragedy of the Korean plane - but it is still expecting its Oct. 22 demonstration to be the largest ever held in West Germery.

Given such a mixture of turbulence and passivity, the political forecast for the next two months might well borrow the ambivalent wording of virtually every German weather report: ''clear to cloudy.''

What is clear is that if this final round of American-Soviet Euromissile negotiations fails to produce any arms control agreement by its expected conclusion in mid-November, then NATO will deploy new intermediate-range (INF) missiles starting in December. The first portion of Pershing II and cruise missiles will go into West Germany and Britain, with Italy's cruises coming later - despite Bonn's repeated insistence that one other continental ally must station the new missiles simultaneously with West Germany.

A failure of the talks and a subsequent deployment of NATO missiles are taken for granted now by virtually all Western diplomats - with a few notable exceptions.

The most conspicuous of these exceptions, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, regularly expresses optimism about the possibility of reaching arms control agreement this year. In recent days, however, he has been contradicted by British, French, American - and now Soviet - spokesmen after his recent positive remarks about the prospects for the arms control talks. Observers attribute his optimism primarily to a desire to keep West German antinuclear protesters off balance.

In retrospect observers see the same phenomenon at work in official West German hopes last summer - after Chancellor Helmut Kohl's talks in Moscow - for real Soviet movement in arms control this fall. And at least some American officials see in wishful West German optimism the explanation for Genscher's and Dr. Kohl's short-lived public revival last July of the American-discarded ''walk in the woods'' Euromissile formula of summer 1982.

In their own way, however, some American officials also share the ''optimism'' - or fear - that the Soviets will move on Euromissile arms control at the last minute this fall. What they worry about is the Soviets will revive just that part of the ''walk in the woods'' - a package that Moscow rejected at the time even more emphatically than Washington did - that would ban new Pershing ballistic missiles in Europe (while leaving the much slower cruises there).

Since West Germany is the only country that will take Pershing IIs under NATO plans, such a half solution might have strong appeal for West Germans. In the tentative ''walk in the woods'' proposal worked out informally by the American and Soviet chief negotiators, NATO renunciation of any new Pershings was counterbalanced by Soviet exemption of British and French intermediate-range missiles from the NATO-Soviet European balance, and by an additional ceiling on Soviet SS-20 missile deployments in Soviet Asia.

In the new American position, the US does not offer any renunciation of Pershing IIs. It does, however, according to the New York Times, offer to let the Soviets have a greater total number of SS-20s (in both European and Asian Soviet territories) than NATO INF missiles (not counting British and French intermediate missiles). As explained by sources here, this would try to solve the sticky question of British and French missiles by tacitly counting them against SS-20s in Soviet Asia.

Curiously - although the British and French missiles have been a burning issue in Europe - the New York Times leak of the new American position has so far been virtually ignored in Europe.

Equally ignored has been the Italian decision, for technical reasons, to postpone cruise deployments in Sicily until next spring.

Certainly the antinuclear protesters are treating the Italian position as no more than a technicality. Their top priority at the moment is to regain the initiative after being swept well off of Page 1 by world reaction to the Soviet shooting down of the Korean airliner.

The impact of that incident on the European peace movement is not yet clear. Many protesters argue that it showed less the untrustworthiness of the Soviets than the dangers of automatic defense systems and procedures running amok in the nuclear world.

A public verdict on this interpretation is not yet in. It may come in the individual decisions that will determine how many demonstrators turn out at the Oct. 22 antinuclear rallies in West Germany.

In the meantime, however, the Korean airliner tragedy has completely eclipsed the opening of the fall campaign against the new NATO missiles. Police, after 10 days of not interfering, finally evicted the 26 remaining protesters who were blocking access to the American Pershing I base at Mutlangen Sept. 12, and there was certainly no public outcry.

Within the West German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the airline downing has clearly not halted the growing tide against the new NATO deployments. The southwest regional SPD organization has just proposed an unconditional rejection of any stationing of new American missiles here.

The party's national convention, to be held at the end of the current round of Euromissile negotiations in November, will decide the SPD line on the missiles. While it is generally expected that the SPD will not reject the new missiles, it is expected that it will recommend postponement of the planned deployments while arms control talks continue.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.