THE argument over SALT II is confusing a more important question: What kind of strategic weapons, and how many, does the United States need? SALT II's importance is largely symbolic. Even had it been ratified, it would have expired by now. A majority of the Senate signed a letter to the President asking him to continue to abide by the treaty; but when senators had the chance, two-thirds would not vote to make the treaty binding. They could still do so. The treaty remains before the Senate; it is on the calendar of the Foreign Relations Committee. All that senators upset by presidential abandonment of SALT II need to do is vote on the treaty. This seems unlikely in the unreal world of nuclear politics.

When the President abandoned SALT, he scored some points with anti-Soviet hard-liners in the US, but alienated important segments of European opinion and he further complicated prospects for another summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. Even while the President was observing SALT, he went out of his way to criticize it. Thus he explained that although dismantling two Poseidon submarines kept us in compliance, the real reason we dismantled the subs was not the treaty but the budget: They needed expensive overhauling.

This points up the question that tends to get lost in the symbolism: How much defense does the US need and what kind? Absent even the symbolic limits of SALT, there seems to be a desire approaching a frenzy to build weapons simply because we have the right to. Whether we need them is almost irrelevant. As Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle put it, ``Either the Congress will stand with the administration . . . or the Congress will stand with the Soviets.'' One reason we have a Congress is to have somebody to say no to the president. Saying no does not make Congress pro-Soviet. Mr. Perle knows this. When he worked for the Senate, he contrived many ways for Congress to say no to presidents.

To argue that we should build a weapon simply because no treaty says we cannot build it is only a short step from arguing that we should continue to look for new and better weapons to build. If we are going to do that, then it follows that the new weapons need to be tested to be sure they work. And from that, it follows that we cannot have a comprehensive test-ban treaty.

Opponents of such a treaty tend to emphasize another argument against it. This is that Soviet cheating would go undetected. Technical progress in verification has been so great that fear of successful Soviet cheating has to assume herculean and incredibly expensive Soviet efforts. But such assumptions are made. Says Paul S. Brown of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: ``They could certainly get away with [testing deep in outer space]. They could go beyond Mars, in which case we'd have to go beyond Mars to measure it.''

How much would it cost to conduct a nuclear test beyond Mars? What could possibly be learned from it that would make it cost effective? But would not somewhere beyond Mars be a wonderful place for nuclear explosions? Certainly it would be far better than Semipalatinsk -- or Nevada, for that matter.

The natural drive of technology is to produce something better. As long as tests, whether on earth or beyond Mars, confirm that it is better, there will be another set of incentives to add it to our inventory of weapons -- not because we need it, but because it's there.

Ronald Reagan still has a narrow window of opportunity to get a serious arms control treaty and get it ratified. But the window is closing as his second term winds down. Just as Richard Nixon was perhaps the only President who could have begun normalizing relations with China, Mr. Reagan may be the only one who can begin real arms control. He has said many times he wants to do that. His chance will not last much longer.

The case for arms limitations is usually put on the basis of the danger nuclear weapons represent to human survival. That is a good case. But the aftermath to the abandonment of SALT II suggests a more prosaic reason. We need treaties for the same reason an alcoholic needs to have the liquor locked up: to save us from ourselves.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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