Reagan's to decide

THE transatlantic atmosphere for communicating between President Reagan and President Chernenko seems to be slowly and steadily improving. The static of hostile rhetoric has lessened. First there was the Washington visit of Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko before the election. Since then, Mr. Chernenko, in a Western style public-relations spurt, has taken to making direct statements through American journalists and has exchanged letters with Mr. Reagan. Secretary of State George Shultz seems to have his own channel working with Mr. Gromyko. So far so good.

But at home, Mr. Reagan has not had equivalent success at establishing lines of communication on the Soviet-arms control issue within his own political party or within his own administration.

This arms policy fight is nothing new. It preceded the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It has to do essentially with whether one can trust the Soviet Union to keep its word on any pact whatever. Is it better to have the structure of agreement and communication, however honored in spirit and detail, or is it better to have no agreement at all but to keep the Soviets' feet to the fire militarily and in international tribunals? The feelings stemming from these points of view sink deep into the American body politic. The cold-war polemicists held sway over the recent Republican national convention. In Washington since the election the arms-pact nixers have been assailing the Reagan administration with reports and studies reinforcing the ''peace through strength'' theme. Officials have been walking on eggs in fear of antagonizing the right wing.

Secretary of State Shultz and National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane have been pushing to get the President to adopt an overall plan for dealing with the Soviets. At the same time, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has arms negotiations in hostage. The Defense Department has programs in progress in all key talk areas; by moving ahead on them, it can stalemate the prospect of openings for talks. For example, the department is moving post-haste with the intermediate-range missile deployments - even talking about surpassing the current ceiling. Mr. Weinberger has drawn the line on a space weapons test moratorium, another Soviet demand.

Mr. Shultz would apparently forge an overall structure separate from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which is headed by Kenneth L. Adelman. Mr. Adelman has his own ideas about talks. He suggests that informal arms pacts may have to supplement the current formal approach, which has bogged down badly. The Adelman suggestions, which he labels his own views, come at an inopportune time, when something more substantial than informal agreements is being sought.

However, if the domestic ideological tension persists, the policy logjam within the administration continues, and Moscow does not budge toward meaningful concessions, then the Adelman approach might prove to be the best that can be achieved in the next few years. How disappointing if this should prove to be the case.

Did Mr. Reagan lose his grip on the arms talks process early in his administration when he might have had an opportunity for an agreement, when movement toward direct talks was thwarted from within? Or can he not make up his mind how to become both a peace president and a strength president?

The internal bureacratic maneuverings, the ideological think tank attempts to crowd the public policy debate, can play a role in influencing the President's decisions. But no orchestrated exchange of letters, no nuance of diplomatic shuffling between Washington and Moscow, no attempt to stack the leadership lineup of the United States Senate, important as these might be, means as much as what the President himself decides to do.

It is a president's responsibility to forge a workable political consensus, on arms or any other sensitive matter. He has to put the weight of his office and his powers of persuasion behind it. He has to commit himself. He cannot sit Hamlet-like and wait for a champion to emerge from among his court's infighters to tell him what to do. He has to take the heat to win the prize. This has always been so.

As it is, Mr. Reagan's professed bid to become a successful conservative peacemaker appears still in danger of being buffaloed by domestic factionalism and internal administration dissent.

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