PRESIDENT Reagan's defense of continued hefty military spending Wednesday night did not exactly fall on deaf ears. But it sounded like a plea from the past. The argument over the nation's need to embark on a defense buildup was decided a decade ago, when President Carter began a reversal of the post-Vietnam lapse in defense outlays, a process greatly speeded up under President Reagan. Congress has been generous to this President on defense. The American weapons budget is now on a par with the Soviets'. The rate of growth of Soviet military spending has apparently slowed. On the quality of weapons, the United States is not inferior.
The President's case -- that ``strength is the most persuasive argument we have to convince our adversaries to negotiate seriously and to cease bullying other nations'' -- can still be made at a level of defense spending that's lower than the Defense Department wants.
Indeed, at this stage, lowering the trajectory of defense spending growth could make an arms control agreement easier to reach. The economies of both superpowers would benefit by a slower arms race.
That Mr. Reagan went to the public on the issue, although with notably less fervor than in times past, is not hard to understand. As a leader, he should be expected to use the force of his office to help frame the debate. It is a signal of intentions to the Soviet leadership, just after Mikhail Gorbachev had addressed his first party congress in Moscow earlier this week. It is a debt owed to consistency in Reagan's public career and to those who voted him into office. The administration has really no major second-term domestic agenda besides defense spending and tax reform, which makes the defense issue all the more crucial to maintaining an activist image. And the President's way of dealing with legislatures is to maintain his maximum position until the last moment, waiting for others to frame a potential compromise.
The fact is, however, that the Congress and the public feel that the defense buildup has been enough of a success that defense should now submit to the same deficit-reduction discipline as other categories of spending. The issue is not really the value of strength, but, rather, when enough strength is enough.
The flirtation between Moscow and Washington continues, despite the failure thus far of arms control proposals from one side to mesh with those of the other. The Reagan response to Mr. Gorbachev's Jan. 15 proposal was at least timed to engage the Soviet party congress, keeping the courtship alive. The President's proposals on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) seemed a m'elange of various departmental positions.
It seems clear in Moscow that Gorbachev does not intend to return from a summit again with nothing concrete. The White House is trying to decouple an arms agreement from a Gorbachev visit to the US, while the Kremlin is trying to force Mr. Reagan's hand. Whether an agreement on so-called confidence-building measures will suffice for the Kremlin is far from certain. An interim INF pact might be possible. Maybe not.
Failure to convert the huge US buildup to date into arms control progress would be deeply disappointing. Such failure would be more a matter of will, trust, and desire than of comparative levels of defense spending.
If negotiations for peaceful relations are the aim of defense outlays, the administration has long since been given munitions enough to succeed.