If Mikhail Gorbachev has swept the world off its feet, he is causing both wonderment and perplexity among American policymakers. Reagan administration officials describe the Soviet leader's speech to the United Nations as ``breathtaking'' in scope and tone. They view the troop-cut pledge as a hopeful prelude to what is expected to be a long process of negotiation toward meaningful reductions in conventional forces in Europe.
As they analyze the fine print of Mr. Gorbachev's address, however, they find many unanswered questions and ambiguities in his proposals - from providing debt relief for developing countries and calling for a peace-keeping force in Afghanistan to turning the controversial Krasnoyarsk radar into a UN research facility.
The United States now walks a fine line between not seeming to throw cold water on Gorbachev's propositions and watching to see whether and how he will turn words into deeds. US officials voice a certain discomfiture.
``He makes us look like stick-in-the-muds and reactive,'' says a senior administration official. ``He's gone on the offensive and we have to be effective in not appearing to be too negative because there are some positive implications if the spirit and words become a reality.''
What impresses diplomatic observers in and out of government is the de-ideologized tone of Gorbachev's address. There was no reference to class struggle or Marxist terminology.
But, while they are encouraged by Gorbachev's emphasis on global cooperation and on rejecting the use or threat of force as an instrument of foreign policy, diplomatic experts in and out of government say that much of what the general secretary said has to be treated with skepticism or caution. For example:
Debt relief. It is acknowledged that third-world debt is among the most critical problems facing the global economy. But Gorbachev's offer of a Soviet moratorium on debt servicing by the ``least developed countries'' and support for UN efforts to reduce debts owed Western commercial banks is viewed as a masterful political stroke at little cost to the Soviets.
``It's hard to take seriously a debt proposal coming from a government that has made a hash of its own economy,'' comments the senior US official. ``The Soviets' internal debt is more than twice their GDP [gross domestic product], and the indebtedness abroad is on a government-to-government, not commercial, basis.''
Economists suggest that Gorbachev's aim is to underscore that the USSR is serious about being a participant in international economic institutions. ``He wants to project an image of participating positively, as against persisting in a negative cold-war position,'' says William Cline of the Institute of International Economics.
Afghanistan. Gorbachev is seen to be desperately looking for an international cover to ease Soviet humiliation over the collapse of their client government in Kabul. Hence the proposal for a cease-fire by Jan. 1 and installation of a UN peace-keeping force in Afghanistan.
US officials believe the Soviets have too much at stake diplomatically to renege on their agreement to withdraw all their forces by mid-February. The UN idea, they say, is totally unrealistic.
``What could UN troops do fired upon from two sides?'' asks an administration official. ``A peace-keeping force will work only where the parties want such a force.''
Eastern Europe. Diplomatic specialists are intrigued by Gorbachev's words about ``freedom of choice'' and the ``multi-optional nature of social development'' in both capitalist and communist countries. These phrases carry immense implications for liberalization in Eastern Europe. The question is how far Moscow will permit Poland, Hungary, other other East-bloc countries to reform not only their economic but also their political systems.
Moreover, US officials say, ``freedom of choice'' is a loaded term that can be used by the Soviets as a way to keep the United States out of countries with Marxist systems, such as Nicaragua.
The Krasnoyarsk radar. What does Gorbachev mean by ``dismantling and refitting certain units and structures'' of the controversial Siberian radar in order to turn it into a UN center for research on outer space? The US regards the radar as a violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and an impediment to reaching a strategic arms agreement.
The administration's concern is that the Soviets have been assembling a capability for breaking out of the ABM Treaty. ``An effort to dress up Krasnoyarsk through an international space effort diverts us from the real issue - why did they violate the treaty?'' says a US official. ``Why not tear the thing down?''
Some independent arms specialists, however, see the Gorbachev offer as opening the way for early negotiation of the dispute.
``That's important because this needs to be on the table and settled early in the Bush administration,'' says Alton Frye, an arms expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. ``It creates an opening through which George Bush could move honorably.''
Middle East. Gorbachev did not say much beyond criticizing the US decision not to give Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a visa so he could address the UN in New York. The Soviet leader also alluded to the ``assistance'' both Moscow and Washington have given in efforts to resolve regional disputes.
Diplomatic experts see the Soviets as being determined to be involved in the Middle East and therefore moving the PLO toward a posture acceptable to the US.
But the Reagan administration continues to stress that the only stable solution will be direct negotiations between the parties, and not something that suggests a solution imposed by the US and the Soviet Union.
US officials are also intrigued by a conspicuous omission in Gorbachev's address. He referred to the French and Russian Revolutions as the ``two great revolutions'' that have altered the course of history and given impetus to mankind's progress.
And the American Revolution of 1776?