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Mr. Reagan's priorities

There will not be any public accounting of the price President Reagan paid to get Kenneth Adelman confirmed by the Senate to be new director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency of the government of the United States.

Records are not kept in such matters. The coinage of politics is a postmastership here, a flood control dam there, a contract worth jobs in one city rather than another. Often it is in the form of a promissory note. Every president spends such things to get a winning vote in Congress on some issue he thinks is important.

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In this case we on the outside do not know the price paid, and never will. But we do know it took political coinage to turn the Senate around from an inclination to reject the nomination to a confirmation. The question left over is why Mr. Reagan went to bat so stoutly in a political fight which proves nothing more than that Mr. Reagan controls a political machine able to do what was done.

The battle was not fought over whether and when the US would make new or different proposals on arms control to the Soviets. That decision will not by made by Mr. Adelman in his new capacity. It will be made by the President on the advice of his secretary of state.

The job of head of the arms control agency is one of those irrelevancies which crop up in a vast governmental bureaucracy for reasons which may have seemed politically valid at some particular time, but have long since lost their weight and meaning.

Whether to negotiate with the Soviets and on what terms are matters of highest statecraft. No one lower than the President and his secretary of state is competent to make such decisions or to judge when the time is ripe for some new move.

Decisions in such matters are taken within the context of larger matters of policy. The proper place for detailed study of arms-control problems is inside the State Department. Instead of having a separate agency there ought to be just an office or bureau inside the department with at its head an assistant secretary selected by and reporting to the secretary. Then the secretary would be in a position to decide within the context of national policy when and whether to negotiate and with what purpose in mind.

The trouble at the arms control agency began when Mr. Adelman's predecessor, Eugene Rostow, operated as a separate authority with a right of direct access to the President and not required to keep the secretary of state informed. A complaint against him heard among both State Department and White House staff members was that he was, in effect, running his own separate mini-State Department and trying to influence the President in arms control and also in other unrelated areas such as Middle East policy.

Mr. Rostow was openly and avowedly fired from his job.

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That was the right moment to deflate the job and fit it back into the machinery of the State Department where it belonged. Instead, the President nominated a person hitherto almost unknown outside the US delegation at the United Nations.

Mr. Adelman is one of scores of young aspiring academics who move in and out of government jobs. He was brought in on the staff of Jeane Kirkpatrick, US ambassador at the UN. He has written a few articles for newspapers and publications. But he was not a person of widely recognized stature or authority.

The choice of Mr. Adelman for the nomination did not advance or retard the cause of arms control. The rejection of Mr. Adelman would not have affected the cause of arms control. The confirmation of Mr. Adelman does not advance or retard the cause. If there is a new arms-control agreement with the Soviets, it will be because the President wants one at what he thinks will be the right time. And when the time comes the agreement will be negotiated by Paul Nitze or someone like Mr. Nitze who is widely known, respected, and experienced as a negotiator.

The only real issue was whether the Senate would confirm the person the President happened to choose for the job. Presidential authority was at stake, nothing else.

All of which means that the President spent on a minor appointment time, energy, and political credit which would better have been spent on saving his extremely important peace plan for the Middle East or on perfecting a Latin American policy which could command bipartisan support in Congress.

Mr. Reagan won a prestige victory with Mr. Adelman. But meanwhile his peace plan was wrecked and Central America seemed to be getting more intractable than ever.

The White House is having trouble with its priorities.

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