THE crossed signals over the United States-Soviet treaty banning medium-range missiles shouldn't be difficult to unscramble. But the Senate leadership was wise to keep the treaty off the Senate floor until the misunderstandings are cleared up.
The INF pact sets precedents vital to negotiating cuts in strategic nuclear weapons. It's the first such treaty to reduce - to the point of elimination - an entire class of nuclear weapons. And it's the first to allow people to lift lids and check under tarps to ensure that the other side is adhering to the treaty. The buzz phrase is ``on-site inspection,'' contrasted with relying only on spy satellites and other ``national technical means'' to monitor compliance.
Breaking fresh ground like this makes it all the more important to get it right the first time.
It should come as little surprise, given the Soviets' long tradition of secrecy, that disagreements they raised center on the provisions for on-site inspection. It would also be easy to gin up all sorts of sinister reasons for Soviet objections.
But it is more likely that the disagreements are honest ones. The treaty is complex, the text in two languages. Some provisions were written on a plane flight to Washington just before the signing at last December's summit. Negotiators worked under pressure of the summit deadline. In anticipation of ratification, teams from each side are now faced with putting together from the treaty blueprint the nuts-and-bolts structure to carry it out. Some provisions take effect within 30 days of ratification.
Provisions that look ironclad on paper can look less so when people actually wrestle with putting them into effect, especially if there is a sense of urgency. Given the treaty's radical departure from the past and bureaucratic conservatism, it's not hard to imagine Soviet representatives disagreeing with their US counterparts over interpreting provisions and then tossing those hot potatoes up the official ladder for a ruling on who is right.
US Secretary of State George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, need to come out of their Geneva meeting with the strong message: ``This is what we both mean.''
It may be true that some elements within Soviet bureaucracy resist the treaty. But Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev needs something to show for perestroika, and he's not getting much of it at home. A ratified INF Treaty would allow him to claim a foreign policy success. Thus he's not likely to allow these disagreements to continue.
Is the Senate leadership playing political games with the Reagan administration in holding up the treaty? Maybe. But there is strong bipartisan support for the agreement in the Senate. The leadership appears to want to report a treaty out with as few targets hanging from it as possible for opponents to shoot at.
The floor debate will be vigorous enough as it is. Even when the verification issues are resolved, disputes will remain. One deals with whether the treaty adequately addresses futuristic weapons. Another involves a provision added in a Senate committee that locks in as permanent the administration's current interpretation of the treaty.
Although the US-Soviet summit meeting at the end of this month would be thin on substance if the treaty isn't ratified by then, it wouldn't be a wasted effort. The Senate's caution is valid.