IN deciding when to use sanctions, or when to lift them, the United States appears both uncertain and inconsistent. This is perhaps best illustrated by the examples of Poland, South Africa, and the Soviet Union. Sanctions were imposed against the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 and extended after the declaration of martial law in Poland in 1981. Washington recognized, correctly, that Moscow was behind the crackdown on Solidarity.
These sanctions were then quietly lifted last fall, at the time of the Geneva summit. More recently, Washington approved the sale of grain surpluses to the Soviet Union, subsidized by the American taxpayer. All, it seems, has been forgiven.
In the case of South Africa, the US says it opposes sanctions because they would hurt people indiscriminately and only lead to more violence.
What about Poland? When sanctions were imposed after martial law in 1981, they were welcomed by the Polish people as a symbol of American solidarity with Solidarity. The administration's subsequent carrot-and-stick policy was successful in obtaining concessions, notably the successive amnesties that saw the number of political prisoners reduced from nearly 3,000 in 1983 to closer to 300 by July of this year. Another 225 prisoners were to have been released yesterday.
But recent US policy toward Poland appears to have lost its way. The sanctions are no longer being used to obtain concessions. They just remain in place. In addition to a credit freeze, they include suspension of most-favored-nation status for Polish exports and a ban on US exports of nonmilitary technology.
Authentic representatives of the Polish population -- Lech Walesa, the Roman Catholic Church, and such leading dissidents as Jacek Kuron -- have been sending signals to Washington, so far in vain, urging that the remaining sanctions be used as leverage for further concessions. Among them: full and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience, other clear evidence of progress toward reconciliation between the government and its people, and acceptance of the church's agricultural foundation for channeling economic aid to Poland's thousands of small farmers.
Instead of such clearly defined objectives, conflicting signals have been sent to the Jaruzelski government in recent months. Last March, former US Ambassador Walter Stoessel paid an unofficial visit on General Jaruzelski which looked like the beginning of a new ``constructive engagement'' that could lead to improvements in the area of human rights.
A month later, Washington pointedly abstained from supporting Poland's application for membership in the International Monetary Fund. It didn't change the outcome, but did succeed in further souring relations with Warsaw, where Jaruzelski's government responded with an outburst of anti-American propaganda and an escalation of repressive measures.
In May, the US charg'e d'affaires in Warsaw returned home for guidance -- and went back to Poland apparently empty-handed.
One explanation for the current inertia in our policy toward Poland is said to be the firmly held belief among influential elements of the Republican Party that all countries in the Soviet orbit should be treated as one hostile camp.
These American politicians see Poland as a potential source of further embarrassment for Moscow. They are said to be convinced that if deteriorating economic conditions in Poland lead to another popular uprising, followed by another bloody suppression, the political cost for Moscow will be severe -- and that would be a gain for the US.
This concept, regardless of its moral aspects, is clearly wrongheaded. The progressive impoverishment of the Polish population and its increased isolation from the West can only weaken the present nonviolent but still effective resistance. After yet another abortive revolt the Polish people would almost certainly fall back into a state of pervasive national apathy. This would only help Moscow to restore the kind of rigid monolithic structure in Eastern Europe that it enjoyed during the Stalinist era.
The present stalemate in our policy toward Poland is not only hurting the Polish population, but is seriously eroding American influence on the trend of events in that long-suffering country. We are losing the very leverage our sanctions were meant to provide, at a time when it could be used in a most positive way.
In the past, President Reagan has shown himself particularly attentive to the hopes and needs of the Polish people. They, not the Warsaw regime, are now asking the President to act, to reassert his policies over his aides, to seize the opportunity for a new quid pro quo with Warsaw -- not to allow the sanctions to remain, as they seem to have become, a sterile end in themselves.
Jan Nowak is national director of the Polish-American Congress.