VICE-President Quayle startled some people this week by telling the Washington Post that despite the summit in Malta, Soviet foreign policy hadn't changed much. ``You're still dealing with a totalitarian government,'' he said, that wants to ``create instability'' in such areas as Central America. Though there has been some liberalization within the Soviet Communist Party, Mr. Quayle is not far off about the Soviets still having a totalitarian government. And as for Central America, somebody is lying - either the Soviets or the Nicaraguans - about the shipments of weaponry to El Salvador.
But Mr. Quayle is wrong when he suggests Soviet foreign policy is unchanged under Mikhail Gorbachev. The reasons for the change may be pure self-interest. But Mr. Gorbachev clearly wants a better and more tranquil relationship with the United States. He clearly is prepared to let his people go in Eastern Europe. Those are big changes.
Where the change is far less impressive is inside the Soviet Union. Yes, we have glasnost. Yes, we have failing perestroika. But while Mr. Gorbachev may acquiesce in the Communist Party's demise in Poland, he is not about to sanction the demise of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. While he may smile and wave as Hungary moves towards a free market system, he clings to something called ``market socialism'' in the Soviet Union.
So Mr. Quayle is wrong about Soviet foreign policy, but right in his view of the Soviet Union as an undemocratic state, one clinging to outmoded socialist economic precepts that have proven disastrous.
But whatever Mr. Quayle thinks, do his views put him at loggerheads with Bush. Those close to Mr. Quayle say there is no schism, but there certainly are differences of perspective.
Why should that surprise us? Mr. Bush picked Mr. Quayle as his sheet-anchor to the political right. There are significant differences between the right wing and Republican moderates, and Mr. Quayle is articulating those differences now. There is nothing like the Soviet Union for polarizing opinion within the Republican Party. Quayle must be careful how far afield he strays from the president's position. But Mr. Bush may not be overly concerned by Mr. Quayle's voicing views congenial to the political right.
Given the speed of recent events, and the unpredictability of the future, it would be unusual if there were not differences of opinion and approach within the Bush administration.
Mr. Bush himself has moved from cautious aloofness to ``new thinking'' about the present Soviet regime. In Malta he proposed moves to hasten disarmament, to encourage democracy in the Soviet Union, to bolster Soviet production.
Is the goal to make Soviet communism more benign, or to hasten what many believe must be its eventual collapse? Will American economic help shore up Soviet communism for longer than what otherwise might have been the case? Or will it whet the appetite of Soviet citizens for more of what the West has to offer?
If Mr. Gorbachev should fall, probably all bets are off. But even if he survives, the future is not certain. The tide in Eastern Europe may be flowing too strongly towards freedom to reverse. But one cannot rule out at least the possibility of another Tiananmen Square in one or another Soviet city.
In government, among press, and public, there are divergent views about the Soviet Union and how the United States should approach it. Columnist William Safire says Mr. Bush ``failed miserably'' in Malta, giving too much and getting little in return. A. M. Rosenthal says Mr. Bush turned Malta into an instrument for the preservation of the Soviet Communist Party. By contrast, Germond and Witcover called Malta a political ten-strike for the president.
Small wonder there may be divergent views even within the White House.