Arms and politics
Our reading of the current intentions and mood of the Reagan administration is that it feels no political urgency to reach an arms agreement with the Soviet Union next year, or through the end of Mr. Reagan's first term.
It is hard to overstate the significance of this.
As a domestic political calculation, as a reading of how United States-Soviet arms negotiations might go, as a barometer of how deep the chill in East-West relations could plunge with attendant allied jitters, the apparent White House conclusion that an arms agreement is not crucial to a Reagan reelection effort should put a clearer perspective on events ahead.
It is a troubling perspective to many of us who feel the nuclear balance of terror represents the biggest moral and political challenge of this era - an evil-sum game of distrust, intimidation, and potential destruction.
Some in the White House feel that two terms, or eight years, would be too long to go without arms agreement progress. But through this first term - assuming Mr. Reagan announces for a second-term campaign in late January as expected - the administration can get by without one.
No agreement still fits with the overriding Reagan theme, ''Peace through strength.'' It has been necessary to offer negotiating proposals, to demonstrate sincerity in bargaining maneuvers. The Reagan team has done this, to satisfy the desires of allies and those at home who have linked approval of deployment of more missiles to negotiating efforts.
But the basic Reagan conviction that a strong deterrence is a better guarantee of security than arms pacts is apparent here. The next fiscal year's proposed defense budget increase, a remarkable 21 percent, likewise shows the President's thinking.
The White House feels that general economic progress, which economists expect to continue through 1984, gives the President a considerable cushion of support. They think the election race, most likely against Walter Mondale, could be close , but more because of the discontent of the loose aggregation of voters - women and minorities and labor and others - who feel the tilt of the administration's values has worked against them than because of the arms issue. They see Mr. Reagan's approval rating rising amid his halt-the-Soviet-advance signals, contrary to the third-year decline for most recent White House incumbents.
Any perceived failure to reach agreement with the Soviets can be blamed on Soviet intransigence, the White House calculates. A summit meeting with Yuri Andropov, now mooted by the Soviet leader's apparent illness, no longer seems necessary.
A China summit next April would serve almost as well to show Mr. Reagan's willingness to cross the communist territorial line and speak comfortably with a longtime adversary.
''Psychological parity with the Soviets has been reestablished,'' says one administration expert on US-Soviet relations. The US economy is strengthening. NATO purpose was consolidated as allies held together on missile deployment. The Soviets feel crowded and pinched abroad and have their own domestic troubles. ''The administration has regained confidence in dealing with the Soviets,'' the upbeat analysis continues. ''The paranoia of seeing the Soviets on a roll, the sense of the US in decline, has about evaporated. A better basis for dealing with the Soviets is falling into place.''
That is the administration's case. Again, peace through strength. Voters will have to decide whether this sounds convincing.
Cutting the other way are other arguments. Critics contend that Mr. Reagan failed to seize the opportunity offered by Leonid Brezhnev's passing a year ago to make gains with Mr. Andropov. Similarly, with Andropov's health now in doubt, Mr. Reagan may be missing another opportunity to lay a foundation of tentative trust that could be built on later.
What is the purpose of all the domestic pressure endured by the NATO nations set to deploy the new midrange missiles, missiles purportedly intended to force the Soviets to the negotiating table, if the Reagan administration truly feels no urgency for the talks to bear fruit?
Does the President underestimate the depth of Western longing for arms reduction? ''The battle for public opinion,'' an administration expert says, ''has been over our sincerity.''
To underline clearly Mr. Reagan's overall strategy is not to question his desire for peace. He has consistently opposed previous arms treaties. He and many of his advisers have deep misgivings over the verifiability of pacts. They are angered at apparent Soviet violations of previous agreements. Merely as a tactical matter, it is a mistake, they believe, to let your opponent think you must have an agreement.
The issue of peace and war will play an unusually large role in next year's election. The public should be clear about the President's greater trust in deterrence than in negotiation.