The biggest foreign policy game of Ronald Reagan's presidency opened this week. The Soviets made two deft opening moves. They upped the proposed level for strategic weapons cuts from 40 percent to 50 percent. They sent their new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to Paris where enthusiasm for the American case in this game is the weakest in Western Europe.
Mr. Reagan helped the Soviets (unintentionally, of course) by condoning and calling ``legitimate'' an Israeli bombing attack on the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia which killed at least 60 people.
America's West European allies were shocked by Israel's deed, which was a hostile military action against the most moderate and peaceful of Arab states. They were equally startled and shocked that Reagan would condone the deed, which may have dealt a fatal blow to the current peace initiative in the Mideast. On Wednesday, the Reagan administration sharpened its response to the attack, calling it understandable but deplorable.
The stakes in the big game in Soviet-United States relations are high. Moscow is playing for a nuclear weapons deal with the US on terms as favorable as possible to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with the subsidiary purpose of weakening Europe's ties with the US in the process. If the Soviets and Americans fail to reach an arms control agreement, Moscow's big win would come if the West European allies become convinced that the failure was because Washington's rather than Moscow's terms were set
Mr. Gorbachev's trip to Paris was aimed of course at convincing the French that he is offering a fair deal and that Washington is taking the negative position. Gorbachev was no doubt gratified to find that French President Franois Mitterrand declined President Reagan's invitation to join in a presummit gathering later this month of the US's closest associates in world affairs.
Those invited were Canada and Japan plus the main West European powers -- Britain, West Germany, Italy, and France. The French straddled the issue by saying Monsieur Mitterrand would be happy to talk to Reagan some other time. But refusal to join the group amounted to taking a half step out of the group in the presummit game.
Can the Soviets successfully use summitry as a device for weakening the US system of alliances and associations?
The last time they tried to do it was over the US plan, unveiled in 1983, to deploy American Pershing II and cruise missiles. They used scare tactics aimed at rousing neutralism throughout Western Europe. It had some success, but not decisive success. It failed partly because the Soviets accompanied their campaign with the clampdown of military rule on Poland and continuation of their occupation of Afghanistan.
With a new leader calling the signals in Moscow we might see a change in both strategy and tactics. The offer of arms control terms which would seem tempting in European eyes would be far more impressive to the West Europeans if accompanied by a softening toward the Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern Europe and by a withdrawal from Afghanistan. A ``triple play'' of this sort would undoubtedly appeal to latent neutralism all over the world, but especially in West Europe.
One can only wonder whether something like that will emerge before the round of arms negotiations which opened last week in Geneva is finished.
Meanwhile, the important thing is that the opening Soviet move was wrapped in a prettier pink ribbon than had been expected. Previously, Moscow had hinted that it would propose a 40 percent cut in offensive strategic weapons. To European ears, 50 sounds better than 40. The Soviets added a further bit of decoration by suggesting they might not require the US to give up research into ``star wars,'' but only to forego ``testing and deployment.''
Could Reagan, who has sworn that he will not abandon his search for a nuclear defensive shield, be satisfied to give up ``testing,'' provided he can continue to do ``research''? That might depend on a definition of ``research.''
Meanwhile, Israel bombed PLO headquarters in Tunisia just as Jordan's King Hussein was on Capitol Hill.
Representatives of the PLO were getting ready to call this March on British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe in London, and Washington was still searching for a way to set up a meeting between the Israelis and King Hussein. The fundamental issue here is whether Israel is willing to enter into discussions that are aimed at a withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territory in return for recognition by the Arab world.
There is no point in a meeting if Israel is not prepared to consider withdrawals. Is the coalition government in Israel capable of thinking of withdrawals? Probably the majority of Prime Minister Shimon Peres's Labor Party members would say yes to trading land for peace. But the Likud bloc solidly favors permanent annexation.
Washington has been trying to push Israel toward peace talks with Jordan. Jordan is willing to talk provided the Palestinian Arabs are represented in the process. King Hussein does not dare to negotiate alone without PLO consent and some form of representation.
On Sept. 25, Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, three Israelis were killed aboard a yacht in Cyprus. Israel claimed that the deed had been committed by Force 17, a PLO commando unit. PLO spokesmen denied any involvement in the affair. Israel cited the Cyprus affair as the reason for the bombing in Tunisia. Reagan contended it is ``legitimate'' to take reprisal action ``as long as you pick out the people responsible.''
According to Reagan's reasoning, the Israelis would be entitled to bomb some building in New York City if it housed anyone connected with the PLO. Fidel Castro could also use that argument handily if he wanted an excuse to drop a bomb in Miami. Plenty of his enemies are there.
The President's use of the argument shocked professional diplomats and confirmed in the minds of many the assumption that he is now a prisoner of the pro-Israel lobby in any matter touching the Middle East.