WASHINGTON faces a cluster of decisions on arms and defense that defy an easy, single formula -- on renewing the observed but not ratified SALT II agreement, on funding levels for the President's Strategic Defense Initiative, and on holding overall defense spending increases to the equivalent of inflation or less. An admission of how complex all this appears was indicated by the Senate Armed Services Committee's promise to hire independent scientists to evaluate the feasibility of one part of this arms picture, the SDI, or ``star wars,'' program.

Taken together, however, these decisions will signal a basic attitude toward the Soviet Union: whether Washington still sets much store by the formal arms control process, as represented by SALT II and the current talks in Geneva; or whether Washington, particularly the Reagan administration, is ready to shelve formal agreements for a free-form approach to arms control. The latter is promoted by those who feel the Soviets are not abiding strictly enough by the current codes, who feel that any arms pacts fall more restrictively on the United States than on the Soviets, and who seem to relish a chance for the US to attempt to outcompete the Soviets on the basis of American technological imagination and muscle. The attitude seems to be: Let them catch us if they can. This viewpoint is held by many in the Defense Department and the White House.

Those who favor continuing a posture of support for agreements include the State Department leadership; again some in the White House; America's allies in Western Europe; and, in the case of SALT II, a majority of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff. Among their concerns is that the current arms control efforts would be scotched and that a new arms race could ensue in which the Soviets would be able to outspend the US.

The Senate brought about as much Solomonic sense to this chronic ambivalance as could be expected this week when it voted, in a nonbinding resolution, to urge the White House to continue adhering to the SALT II accord -- which, ironically, an earlier Senate refused to ratify. The language of the resolution would allow the administration to respond to Soviet abrogations, in some manner to be worked out by the White House and Congress. The specific issue before the White House is whether to dismantle older, submarine-based Poseidon missiles when the US begins sea trials for its seventh nuclear-armed Trident submarine this September, to stay within treaty limits.

As a practical matter, it is hard to see how scrubbing the SALT II treaty while the Geneva 2 talks are under way makes sense. If the White House wants reductions in offensive weapons, why hang on to the few Poseidons and risk disrupting talks that could lead to far greater reductions?

The administration says it is up to the Soviets to make the next move. The administration has long thought it is enough to show a disposition to negotiate, but it feels no compulsion to reach an agreement.

The Senate is saying that it wants the talks to continue, that it is unwise to use SALT II to bluff the Soviets to the table, that a somewhat reduced SDI budget is enough for the moment, and that limits on US military spending are due.

One of the great tragedies of the last decade in American foreign affairs was derailment of the strategic arms control process. SALT may have been imperfect, but each step helped improve confidence in the possibilities of negotiations. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was cited as the decisive reason for blocking SALT II. But an even more conservative Senate than the one that balked at ratifying the 1979 accord now says, by a 92-to-3 margin, that what SALT represents should not be abandoned.

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