Gorbachev impresses, Reagan distresses. Europe hails Soviet action on rights but is wary of US arms moves

This has been another week during which Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow did and said things that greatly pleased America's friends and allies in Europe, while the news out of Washington caused them more distress. The Kremlin pardoned 140 political prisoners. From the White House came reports that President Reagan was leaning toward a decision that would breach the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and probably close down the whole arms control process for the duration of Reagan's term.

This followed a week in which the main West European allies refused a United States invitation to hold a conference on ``terrorism'' in Rome. The French, West Germans, and British made it abundantly clear that they wanted no part of a meeting that would imply a ganging up against the Arabs, particularly at a time when a US naval task force was headed toward the Arabian shore and Europeans are hostages in the Middle East.

During the previous week, Mr. Gorbachev received a deputation of Americans across the political spectrum who are influential in foreign policy. He largely convinced them of his dedication to economic and social reform in the USSR, and also that he really does want arms control. Also in the background is Gorbachev's assertion of an intention to pull troops out of Afghanistan and a reported reduction of troops in Mongolia.

Mr. Gorbachev is sketching a picture of a new Soviet Union, in which human rights are to be respected and which will become a satisfied great power no longer threatening its neighbors. How true the picture will be is another matter. But it looks lovely to West Europeans who have long lived next to an expansionist giant.

The contrast between the Gorbachev painting and Mr. Reagan's brandishing of naval forces in the far Mediterranean bothers the European allies. In the past two weeks alone, the allies have disassociated themselves from two major Reagan policies - Middle East and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'').

The idea of breaking the ABM Treaty for early star wars deployment has brought strong private reminders to the White House of promises made to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. They say they have a right to be consulted before deployment. In Washington, the President is being urged to make the commitment, now, in the form of a reinterpretation of the ABM Treaty.

The West Europeans have not been consulted about early deployment. They have not given their consent. To them, the arms control process, as a channel of communication in East-West ties, is of more value than star wars. Their commitment to NATO is conditioned on a US promise to pursue arms control dialogue with Moscow.

Trade is another sore subject in the transatlantic relationship. Very rough bargaining and the threat of tariff retaliation caused the European Community to back down last month on its reduction of US grain exports to Spain and Portugal. But the affair has left a bad taste on both sides of the Atlantic. The new trade battle over the Airbus is adding to the acrimony.

The uncertainty about policy and implementation in Washington bothers the allies as much as what is actually done. The naval task force was steaming eastward one day, retreating the next. The story on star wars changes from day to day.

This hesitation in Washington contrasts with the decisiveness in Moscow. Mr. Gorbachev impresses his visitors by his firmness and clarity. For example, he is releasing prisoners whose crime has been political dissent and criticism. He promises to release more.

The American deputation to Moscow, which included a Republican, Henry Kissinger; a Democrat, Cyrus Vance; a neoconservative, Jeane Kirkpatrick; and a soldier, Gen. David Jones, came back to Washington impressed by the quality and competence of the new Soviet leader.

Moscow has a government in motion, mostly in directions pleasing to outside eyes. Washington has a government in disarray. It is not seen to be in steady pursuit of any one policy.

Will this condition persist to the end of the Reagan administration? The White House had hoped that by now the Iran affair would have slipped back into history. But like Watergate it seems to have taken on a life of its own. This week the apparent suicide attempt of former national-security adviser Robert McFarlane put the story back on the front pages.

Three-and-a-half months have gone by since the world first learned that the White House had been selling guns to Iran in exchange for American hostages in Lebanon, and apparently transferring some of the money earned to the contras fighting in or near Nicaragua. The dust has not settled. That affair has come to be a fixed feature of the Washington scene.

There have been changes in the White House staff. More can be expected. The staff has not settled down.

The reasonable operating assumption for other governments to make is that the US is in a transition period in which the major decisions of government will be made in the Congress, not at the White House. The serious queston about going ahead with SDI, for example, is not what Mr. Reagan wants, but what Congress will accept and underwrite.

Almost all known evidence indicates that this condition will prevail to the end of the Reagan term. There is no solid reason to think otherwise.

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