The West soon faces a moment of decision on Poland. By all signs, General Jaruzelski is preparing to lift martial law - one year after he imposed it in order to suppress the Solidarity free trade union movement. How does the West react? Should it welcome the move as fulfilling the conditions for a restoration of good relations? Should it skeptically interpret it as simply part of a strategy of perpetuating repression by other means? Or is there a better option in between?
A cautious middle course is probably wise. It would be regrettable if an ending of martial law, including the release of the remaining detainees, did not meet with some positive response from the West. Such a response would do more than signal to General Jaruzelski that the West is interested in renewing a dialogue with Poland, provided the conditions are auspicious. It would also be an occasion to signal to the new leadership in the Kremlin that the West views the developments in Poland as an early opportunity to try to improve East-West ties generally.
On the other hand, too enthusiastic a response might be misread in Warsaw and act against the best interests of the West and the Polish people. The question is what will follow the lifting of martial law; whether, for instance, the Polish government will proceed to legislate new repressive measures. The United States and its allied partners could end up looking quite foolish if the regime freed the internees next week, say, and rearrested them after the Christmas holidays. It would thus seem prudent to wait a while.
But it would be unrealistic not to recognize that General Jaruzelski has, step by step, gained the upper hand and is moving in directions he deems economically feasible for Poland and politically acceptable to Moscow. He has banned Solidarity and demonstrated that he can put down public unrest. So successful has he been that he seems to have subdued even the communist party and the Roman Catholic Church, whose conciliatory policy toward the regime has now sparked controversy among the priesthood.
President Reagan cannot be happy about the demise of Solidarity after the blossoming of freedom it represented. But a new political situation has been created in Poland, and he and his allied partners must seek to extract the best from it. It must not be ruled out that, having regained control, the Polish authorities will try to provide a certain amount of limited freedom for Poles in order to create a more buoyant mood in the country. Or that, if the Polish workers can be persuaded to join the newly approved trade unions, the latter could become viable, independent bodies capable of having a constructive influence on Poland's future economic course. Surely these are the directions which the West can now reasonably encourage.
Mr. Reagan is in something of a bind, because he has tied economic sanctions to a renewal of dialogue among state, church, and Solidarity. He could, however , amend these conditions to foster the continued existence of independent unions as promised by General Jaruzelski. These would, after all, be comprised of former members of Solidarity and, if the name is gone, the spirit need not be.
It is a time, in short, for careful, creative diplomacy. The present sanctions against Poland, including the denial of US tariff benefits, have had more symbolic than material significance but they are a source of concern to General Jaruzelski. Quietly, without the glare of publicity which often ruins diplomatic initiative, Mr. Reagan might tell the Polish leader that, if military rule truly is over and remains over, the US is prepared to ease the sanctions as a gesture of good will.
Beyond this, however, is Poland's future need for Western credits in order to get its economy moving. It is to be hoped that during his current European visit Secretary of State Shultz is discussing the possibility of offering Poland a substantial aid package - provided it moves forward with economic reforms and allows independent unions to evolve. The West still has a stake in not making Poland solely reliant on the Soviet Union, in fostering its independence of action and its Western ties. Whatever the West's disappointments in the failure of the popular movement, it can at least take some comfort from the fact that the Russians have not invaded Poland.
The Poles still have latitude for reform. The challenge will be to help them widen it.