Curiouser and curiouser grows the dispute over the Siberian natural gas pipeline. All the politicians and commentators in Western Europe are for it, all the arguments against it. It is as if the continent had become one vast ''Flat Earth Society.''
First, the project is justified on the grounds of creating employment. But if West Europeans think it sensible to subsidize job creation, why do they not subsidize themselves directly instead of going through the Soviet middleman? As things stand, many of the jobs created will be in Siberia rather than Sunderland. And the Russians rather than the Europeans will have the finished product.
Secondly, Western Europe is increasing its energy dependence on, and thus its political vulnerability toward, the Soviet Union. When the pipeline is completed , the share of Europe's total energy needs (gas, coal, and oil) supplied by the Soviet bloc will amount to something like one-third! Remember that the Soviet Union cut off - or threatened to cut off - energy supplies for political reasons on eight occasions since 1945.
Those occasions were: in 1948 against Yugoslavia, in 1961 against Albania, in 1956 against Israel and Hungary, in 1962 against China, in 1968 against Czechoslovakia, in 1980 when the USSR threatened Europe and Japan with the loss of Soviet fuel supplies if they supported US sanctions over Afghanistan (which, significantly, they failed to do) and, finally, last year when the Politburo threatened to cut off Poland's oil supply unless Solidarity was crushed.
Thirdly, the pipeline is a vast foreign aid project whereby a consortium of European banks and companies will provide a well-armed and militarist hostile power with government-guaranteed low-interest loans. This makes no sense at all. It is also worth bearing in mind when you next hear one of the European heads of government criticize the Reagan administration for policies that keep interest rates high. Nothing is better designed to push up interest rates than borrowing percent to the Soviets. Yet that is what the French and West German governments are doing.
Finally, the project's advocates overlook various alternatives which lack the political drawbacks of the Siberian pipeline, such as: Norway's natural gas reserves, American coal reserves (which could supply at least one-third of Western Europe's energy needs), and even the Nigerian pipeline which would absorb capital and engineering skills at least equal to those required by the Siberian pipeline.
What arguments are there on the other side? Only the petulant complaint that, if President Reagan is opposed to the pipeline, what right has he to sell the Russians grain? With the substance of this criticism I agree. But European leaders like Helmut Schmidt supportm the grain sales in public. If Mr. Reagan is inconsistent and only half right, they are splendidly consistent and wholly wrong.
In short, the West Europeans have risen above politics, economics, strategy, and simple prudence in their decision to go ahead with the pipeline. What inspires them? Is it perhaps an idealistic vision that commerce will lead to peace and international understanding?
Their idealism, if so, will have to be armor-plated in view of the growing evidence that slave labor, including political prisoners and Vietnamese indentured labor, are being used in the pipeline's construction.
The International Association for Human Rights, based in West Germany, announced in June that they had received reports from contacts in the Soviet Union that more and more prisoners sentenced to hard labor were being used to construct the Siberian gas pipeline.
How do we know such reports are true? It is, of course, impossible to be absolutely certain when dealing with a totalitarian society which attempts to enforce complete control of news and information. But there are certain common-sense guidelines.
To begin with, the use of slave labor in major construction projects is quite standard in the Soviet Union. In the construction of the White Sea canal in the 1930s, over a quarter of a million slave workers perished. And as late as the 1970s, concentration camp labor was employed to build the Baikal Amur railway along the Chinese border.
The Soviet Union is still short of labor for such projects. Last year, Mr. Brezhnev delivered a speech in which he stated that the USSR needed 400,000 additional workers to develop new oil and gas fields in Western Siberia. This perhaps explains the import of Vietnamese labor into the USSR.
The Soviets naturally argue that importing Vietnamese labor is a foreign aid program of technical training, that the workers are well paid, and that, according to Izvestia, they live in pleasant climates where ''melons and watermelons grow.'' Reports by refugees and some letters from concentration camps, where former South Vietnamese army officers are ''reeducated,'' tell a different story. These suggest that such prisoners are being, in effect, transported to Siberia for hard labor.
Again, are such stories from such sources believable? An argument on that point is now raging within the State Department. But it is worth remembering that similar reports by Cambodian refugees about the genocide in their country in 1975, widely disregarded at the time, turned out to be true.