Redressing the balance

THE White House decision to go forward with its latest arms sale to Jordan was made more difficult politically, and more necessary diplomatically, by the Achille Lauro affair. But it was the correct thing to do, given the administration's need to work constructively with moderate Arab as well as Israeli interests in the region. Hyperbole has its costs. The gloating over a macho American interception of the Egyptair flight, indulged by the news media as well as by Washington officials, distorted for a period the underlying demands of American Middle East policy.

Surely President Reagan, going to the United Nations Thursday to deliver an address purportedly setting the stage for his summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, wants accounts with allies Italy and Egypt squared as soon as possible.

The White House is having to backtrack with both Rome and Cairo, sending letters and emissaries in an awkward diplomatic effort to enable the parties to save face but without fully apologizing.

The Jordan arms sale should not be decided on the basis of appeasing a short-term sense of affront among allies, much as it should not be decided on the basis of requiting the arms industry's appetite for sales. Still, the White House's decision yesterday to publish its formal intention to go ahead with the $1.9 billion sale of advanced arms to Jordan does show a measure of political courage and commitment to a more balanced Mideast policy. For Washington to have withdrawn its support for the Jord anian arms would have been one more insult to the moderate governments in the region. If Israel's Shimon Peres has reason to declare that negotiations with King Hussein remain promising -- and he would go to Jordan to prove it -- then the White House must keep up its investment in Jordan's leader as a credible participant.

How the Senate and House will respond is not known at this writing. The Senate has the votes to defeat the sale on its own; but whether the votes are there to reject the sale as part of a presidential policy initiative, in a veto-override attempt, is another matter. Among Congress's options are a joint resolution objecting to the sale, or a rider on an appropriations bill later this week. With distance from the Achille Lauro affair, Congress should find itself freer of its initial emotional respon se.

We would prefer that the United States not be in the arms merchant line. In today's world, unfortunately, such sales are part of the superpower-client, regional-influence business. And it is in this context that Washington must reach its decision.

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