Firmness Is Fine, but--

There probably are as many White House-watchers in Moscow as there are Kremlin-watchers in Washington. But people in that line of work in Moscow are said to have an easier time of it because America is such an open society. Try telling that to the analyst who perhaps even now is trying to explain to the boss what President Reagan really has on his mind.

Two weeks ago Reagan said some harsh things about the Soviets, questioning at one point whether they will really pull their troops out of Afghanistan. A country that “continues to suppress (its own peoples’) free expression, religious worship and the right to travel,” he said, cannot have normal relations with the United States any more than can a Soviet Union “that is always trying to push its way into other countries.”

Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev complained a few days later that the speech was gratuitously “confrontational” and that Reagan was delivering sermons about internal matters that were none of his business. The White House said that the speech was just another case of the President’s calling things as he saw them.


Then on Wednesday, speaking in Chicago, Reagan “applauded” the changes in Soviet society that have taken place under Gorbachev’s program of glasnost , or greater openness. Specifically, he said, the Kremlin is releasing more political prisoners, putting fewer dissidents in mental hospitals and publishing articles in its newspapers about crime, drug addiction and other seamy sides of Soviet life that in years past Soviet leaders have denied even existed. “We recognize that changes occur slowly,” he said, “but it is better than no change at all.” He even engaged in some glasnost of his own, acknowledging in a rare departure from his role as America’s cheerleader that, despite its dynamism and progress, America must do more to help the homeless, banish racial discrimination and create jobs for the unemployed.

America’s being an open book is not much help to Moscow’s White House-watchers in this case. Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater denied that the soft tone was meant to be an olive branch. Another Administration official said that it was.

At the risk of making things too easy for Moscow’s wretched White House-watchers, we have a suggestion that would help even Americans immensely: The President should treat the Soviets like grown-ups who are trying to correct one of history’s most massive mistakes. He can be firm on matters like human rights and the Third World without going to excesses of praise or blame. In fact, if he were to do that the firmness would stand out more sharply and not the excesses.