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A desirable prize?

DEMOCRATS in Atlanta last week obscured other news worth attention. It bore on whether the prize at the end of the road from Atlanta is worth having. A year ago, even six months ago, some Democrats were wondering seriously whether they had best not try too hard to win the presidency this time. Wouldn't it be better to let the Republicans win and have to clean up from Ronald Reagan's highest-ever-for-any-country national debt?

Last October's stock market plunge was a chill warning of possible economic turmoil ahead, and the Soviets were still presumed to be a ``threat,'' endangering the peace and forcing huge military spending.

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But times and circumstances change.

We are now nine months away from the stock market free fall of Oct. 16. And Soviet behavior has gone through a change so radical that Western Kremlinologists are left gasping. They knew that Mikhail Gorbachev was of a new Soviet generation, with new ideas. But no Western expert of repute predicted that he would, or could, not only reform the domestic fabric of the Soviet Union but also reverse its attitude toward the outside world.

For example, there was little attention in either broadcast or printed news to the fact that delegations of American and Soviet inspectors have been roaming through each other's nuclear weapons factories and arsenals and that the chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, was touring the United States as the guest of the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William Crowe Jr.

Even more startling was having Admiral Crowe confirm an assertion by his Soviet guest that Soviet naval forces are now practicing a ``defensive military posture'' as part of the new Soviet military doctrine and have ceased naval exercises far from home.

The time was when Soviet warships would play ``chicken'' with US ships in the Mediterranean, when a Soviet naval force would visit Cuba every year, when they made their naval presence conspicuous all over the world. But since Mr. Gorbachev came to office in Moscow they have cut back on the number of ships deployed far off shore. Their presence in the Mediterranean is down. The same is true in the Indian Ocean. There are fewer sorties from Vladivostok into the Pacific. Since the beginning of 1987, no Soviet task force has visited the Caribbean.

The Soviet Navy has in commission a total of 360 submarines and 274 ``principal surface combatant'' ships. But on average at any one time during 1987 it had only 34 submarines on patrol or maneuver away from home, and only 24 surface ships. Mostly, the ships stay in port anyway, but the figures for 1987 are well down from those in 1984, said to have been the Soviets' peak year for ``showing the flag.''

At recent informal gatherings they have proposed that both the US and USSR withdraw naval forces from the Mediterranean. Other trial balloons have been floated from Moscow. Actual Soviet troop withdrawals from Afghanistan go on. This is proving to be only a beginning to a general Soviet policy of going over to a ``defensive military posture.''

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Is it truce, or a long-term change in policy? No outsider can know. But we know that the American response to the earlier bellicose Soviet posture was the most expensive military building program in all history. And we know that the only way to approach a balanced federal budget in the US will be to cut back on the military program.

The tasks for the next US president will be formidable, but not impossible - if we could count on Moscow's becoming a ``good neighbor'' in the world. No one knows that it will be, but the chances are certainly looking up.

A win in November might be worth having.

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