Is it election year propaganda or a serious arms control proposal? The highly publicized way the United States this week presented its new draft treaty to ban chemical weapons suggests to many observers that President Reagan's primary interest is not in negotiation but in dramatizing before the American public his seriousness about arms control.
With the US-Soviet negotiations on nuclear weapons suspended, arms control is the main foreign policy area where President Reagan may be vulnerable to a Democratic attack in an election year, some Washington pundits say. The chances of the administration's reaching any kind of arms control agreement with the Soviets this year - particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons - seem to be diminishing.
The Arms Control Association, an independent educational agency, in a two-page advisory issued this week accuses the administration of using draft proposals as a ''smoke screen'' for two purposes: first, ''to hide the fact that it has thus far failed at arms control''; and second, to justify the production of chemical weapons.
But some experts both in and out of the government describe the administration's new draft treaty to ban chemical weapons as a serious document which marks an evolution, rather than a radical change, from previous proposals.
At the working levels of the administration, it is clear that a great deal of effort and technical expertise has gone into the draft treaty. The same comment can be made about the new plan presented to the Soviet bloc Wednesday by the US and its allies in Vienna at the East-West negotiations on reducing conventional military forces in central Europe.
Given the complexities of the issues involved, however, few experts predict rapid progress in either the talks in Vienna on conventional forces or in the talks on chemical weapons being conducted in Geneva through the 40-nation United Nations Committee on Disarmament.
The initial Soviet reaction to the two new plans being presented in Vienna and Geneva has been largely negative.
At Geneva on Wednesday, Vice-President George Bush unveiled the 66-page proposed international treaty on chemical weapons. The draft included a verification proposal under which the US and other nations would agree to international inspection on short notice of all military or government-owned and government-controlled facilities. The consent to a special inspection would have to be given with 24-hour notice.
The draft treaty calls for a worldwide ban on chemical weapons, including their development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, or transfer.
Viktor L. Israelyan, the head of the Soviet delegation in Geneva, said the Soviet Union would study the draft treaty. But the Soviet news agency Novosti said that the US was ''asking nations voluntarily to sanction intelligence activities by the other side on their territory.''
In its critique, the Arms Control Association (ACA) said the inspection and monitoring needed to implement the draft chemical weapons treaty would be ''unprecedented'' in size and scope.
''Officials of the Reagan administration have been very good at proposing grand, sweeping arms control schemes,'' the ACA said. ''They have not been effective at conducting the businesslike negotiations with the Soviet Union - outside of the public arena - necessary to achieve effective agreements.''
The association said that the history of arms control negotiations shows that serious treaties can only be achieved through confidential, bilateral negotiations with the Soviets. It urged the administration to reopen bilateral talks with the Soviets on chemical weapons which the Reagan administration failed to resume in 1981.
Charles Flowerree, US representative for the Carter administration at the Committee on Disarmament and US-Soviet bilateral talks in Geneva, said the Reagan administration proposals for on-site inspection do not mark a sharp departure from what the Carter administration was proposing. Mr. Flowerree called the Reagan administration's new draft treaty a ''respectable document.''
But Flowerree said in a telephone interview that he was bothered by the highly publicized manner - including the White House Rose Garden send-off for Vice-President Bush - in which the administration presented the draft treaty. He said the Soviets do not like the idea of being ''challenged'' by the complete text of a treaty presented in the full glare of publicity.
Flowerree also said that once a complete text is on the table it is easy for one side or the other to get locked into a position and lose negotiating flexibility. Flowerree is now working as a consultant to the United Nations on procedures needed to investigate the use of chemical weapons.
In contrast with administration arguments, he contends that the US has an adequate deterrent against Soviet chemical weapons at the moment and does not need new chemical weapons.
For the past two years, the Congress has accepted this thesis and rejected Reagan administration requests for funds to build binary-nerve gas production facilities.
But Bush said in an ABC television interview Thursday that if there is no agreement on the proposed ban on chemical weapons, the US should achieve a ''reasonable balance'' with the Soviets to deter the use of such weapons.