BETWEEN getting even and saving face in the current round of ``spy wars,'' the United States and Soviet Union have been muscle-flexing -- trying to prove how tough each can be in the name of a worthy cause. No nation need tolerate known spies within the ranks of diplomats assigned to it. Any nation is certainly within its rights in rooting them out. But the timing, numbers, and showmanship involved in the current expulsion exchange look more like a competitive children's game than two mature nations conducting business. There has been a distinct ring of ``Anything you can do, I can do better.''
Onlookers have been hard pressed to keep score. So far, just in diplomats, it is a lopsided 80 to 10 in favor of the US. But in some ways Moscow's midweek decision to pull back 260 Soviet support workers from the US Moscow and Leningrad missions gives the Soviets a place-kick edge. The US insists the move will probably improve security and that it can cope with it. Still, it is difficult to picture US diplomats, spouses, and clerical workers suddenly scrambling to try to prepare meals, repair plumbing, and keep the embassy motor pool running while getting their regular work done.
In its provocative decision this week to expel by Nov. 1 some 55 Soviet diplomats, the largest number ever ousted at one time, the Reagan administration stresses the security justification. The US claims the nation will be almost free of Moscow's senior spies. Five of the Soviets will be sent packing in response to the expulsion of five US diplomats ordered by Moscow last Sunday -- which, lest one forget, was in response to the earlier US-ordered ouster of 25 diplomats from the Soviet UN mission. Expulsion by the US of the 50 other Soviet diplomats from Washington and San Francisco aims at equalizing each nation's diplomatic presence.
As a long-term goal, even numbers may have some merit. Congress and the FBI had been pushing for it. But it could have evolved by increasing the US diplomatic staff rather than by reducing the Soviet corps. The action could have been taken in installments after low-key discussions with the Soviets. Above all, it could have been done at a different time. It was a delicate moment. There had been significant progress in arms control talks in Iceland and hints of a tentative Soviet concession on ``star wars'' testing, and Moscow had recently allowed several prominent dissidents to leave.
The administration insists that espionage is a problem that can be treated separately from arms control and that its hopes for the latter remain on track. But such neat compartmentalizing rarely works. In the past, Washington itself has often stressed the need for good Soviet behavior on everything from human rights to withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan before progress could be made in other areas. It is noteworthy that Mikhail Gorbachev's midweek speech to the Russians appears to close the door on earlier hints of star-wars concessions.
It is difficult for any nation to steer a steady diplomatic course while flexing its muscles in one area and appearing conciliatory in another. Whether intentional or deliberate, US policy strategy appears disorganized, confusing rather than improving the general atmosphere.
Washington's current preoccupation with the ``spy'' issue suggests once again that it is the Justice Department, the influential organization in the decisions to seize Gennady Zakharov and expel Soviet UN diplomats, which is being allowed the upper hand in crafting US foreign policy. The dramatic move by the US to dismiss 55 Soviets within the next week further suggests a move intended to appeal to conservative Republicans, who had been expected to turn out in small numbers for the November election.
Let us hope that Moscow's latest rejoinder -- the expulsion of five more US diplomats -- and the US call for a halt finally close the book on this diplomatic spy saga. It is time both sides got on with more important chores.