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Taunting the Russians - but trading with them

Some Americans may quietly exult when their President publicly taunts the Russians for their inefficient farm system and for having to depend on American grain exports. He is only saying what everyone knows. But it is a question whether such a presidential posture of open condescension best serves the national interest. Words don't hurt the Russians but they can impair the image of the United States as a nation which conducts policy with firmness - yes - but with civility as well.

Mr. Reagan's twitting of Moscow in his speech on world economic development the other day seemed gratuitous in light of the fact that the United States just this month agreed to triple the amount of American wheat and corn which the Russians are allowed to buy in the next 12 months. This means the Soviet Union will probably make a record purchase of grain. It hardly needs mentioning that American grain farmers, who produced another bumper crop this year, are pleased with the deal. They are eager to sell their surpluses to the Russians and not at all unhappy when poor weather and Soviet mismanagement make this possible.

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Paradoxically, too,it was precisely to satisfy US farmers that the President lifted the grain embargo against the Soviet Union when he came into office. There was no good foreign policy reason for doing that, inasmuch as the Russians had not withdrawn their occupation forces from Afghanistan. All the move did was to convey that the US was placing politics above policy - hardly an effective way to show hardheadedness toward the Kremlin.

Sharp rhetoric, in short, cannot hide the fact both sides find it in their interest to do business. If Mr. Reagan believes the United States should not contribute to the Soviet economy beyond a certain point - and that the US farm should not become overly dependent on the Soviet market - he should formulate a trade policy that achieves the desired balance. It is to be hoped that his administration is in fact working on such a policy. But there is a certain inappropriateness in sitting down with the Russians, bargaining with them, striking a deal, then ridiculing them at the presidential level for having to make the deal.

The risk in such inconsistency is a loss of US credibility - especially among the European allies who already are having trouble distinguishing US foreign policy from American domestic politics.

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