Ironically, it's the Soviets who toss Reagan a lifeline. Arms offer could help damaged presidency

The irony in the news this week is that Ronald Reagan is being rescued by his enemies from his friends. The Soviets, whom he has called ``the source of all evil'' and ``an evil empire,'' have tossed him a political lifeline with an offer to sign an arms control agreement on terms that he himself had once proposed.

This has given his damaged presidency something to do that catches headlines and creates the appearance of a presidency in forward motion toward what is widely, if perhaps mistakenly, perceived to be a good goal.

The arms control delegations at Geneva have been cranked up. The White House press agents are talking about ``favorable prospects'' for getting intermediate-range nuclear weapons out of Europe, even though some critics say such a deal is to the Soviet advantage. There is a hint of a revival of other talks aimed at reducing conventional forces in Europe. Chances are said to be improving for withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

This has taken attention away from the collapsed effort to trade guns to Iran for hostages in Lebanon and to send the profits from the guns deal to the contra rebels in Central America.

All of this may be just what Mr. Reagan needs to save him from his friends, who have let him down. No one else has been so loyally befriended, supported, and encouraged during the Reagan presidency as Israel and the contras. He had scarcely entered the White House before launching aid for the contras. His administration has been recognized by Israelis as the most friendly to Israel since Israel came into existence.

But the Tower Commission report pointed at Israel as the inspiration for the arms-for-hostages deal that stopped the Reagan administration in its tracks and threatened its continuing viability. And the Israelis did not hesitate to plant spies in Washington to extract clandestinely some of America's most valuable secret information.

The Reagan White House has been trying to persuade the contra leadership to clean up its performance on human rights and treatment of the civilian population in Nicaragua. That performance record has been so poor that this week the most widely respected and reputable of the contra leaders, Arturo Cruz, resigned in frustration, saying that ``unless there is deep reform, the problems of the Nicaraguan opposition will go on.''

That ``problem'' is so to reform the methods of the contra fighting teams inside Nicaragua that they will begin to win popular support instead of repelling it. In six years they have failed to win that support.

The Cruz resignation came just as the United States House of Representatives was about to vote on the last $40 million of the current US aid package for the contras. That extra $40 million will probably go to them, but will there ever be another package? The opposition in Congress has grown since the disclosure of the secret diversion of funds to the contras from the Iran arms deal.

The Cruz resignation seems likely to write the last chapter to the contra story. In the back rooms of the reformed White House this week, the new managers of Reagan foreign policy were working on the possibility of a negotiated exit from the affair.

This could take the form of a deal with the junta leadership in Managua under which it would renounce foreign offensive weapons, submit to inspection by neutral neighbors, and promise to refrain from aiding subversive movements in other countries.

In return, Washington would desist from funding the contras.

Undoubtedly the President himself would prefer to overthrow the regime in Managua. However, its actual overthrow has not been the officially declared aim of the operation. Hence the President could accept a negotiated compromise without having to admit the failure of his purpose.

Thanks to the Soviets, such a negotiated way out of the contra policy can perhaps be obscured from embarrassing public notice by the excitement of fresh new socializing with the Soviets. The Soviet proposal to go ahead with a deal on intermediate-range weapons in Europe, separate from other arms negotiations, immediately unleashed a flurry of speculation that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev might come to Washington.

Suppose that after all the false starts toward new East-West agreements there should actually be a productive summit, or one that seems on the surface to be productive.

Suppose that Mr. Gorbachev comes to Washington, or even to New York. The visit would play to packed houses. All eyes would be on the drama.

The possibility highlights the fact that there is a useful foreign policy agenda for the remaining months of the Reagan presidency. Relatively speaking, there is almost no domestic agenda left. The main domestic task of the Reagan administration was to cut income taxes and curb the growth of the welfare state. That was all done during the first four Reagan years. It's finished. It was capped last year by a tax reform deal. There is little of importance left over from the domestic agenda, with the exception of the federal budget deficit.

But in foreign policy, the original agenda called for building useful negotiations with the Soviets on an improved US military position. That improved position has been achieved. It would be logical, and in fulfillment of Reagan planning, to proceed now to the negotiations.

Mr. Reagan's favorite prot'eg'es have been Israel and the contras. It would be ironic indeed if Mikhail Gorbachev rescued the twilight of the Reagan presidency from the troubles stemming from his association with them.

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