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WISEST COURSE IS TO PREPARE FOR WORST

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There's an axiom of military intelligence that calls for making a sharp distinction between your adversary's intention and his capability.

That axiom figures in the current debate over how fast and how far the United States should disarm.The reasoning goes like this: You must be prepared to cope with the worst that your adversary is capable of doing, even though you doubt he intends to do it.

You may have misread his intention. Or he may change his mind. Or he may be replaced. Or changing conditions may surprise you both.

Applying that axiom to the Soviet Union today, where does it take us?

For the sake of argument, and because it's reasonable, let's assume that the last thing Comrade Gorbachev wants right now is trouble abroad.

He has plenty of trouble at home. Independence fever is threatening to rip the Soviet Union apart.

Gorbachev cannot afford to let that happen. He cannot preside over the dissolution of the Russian empire and expect to remain in power. At the same time, he may not be able to prevent it.

So we face two prospects. One is that he will be replaced by a new leader whose intentions are quite different from his.

That shouldn't be treated as a remote possibility. Gorbachev isn't as popular in his own country as he is in the West. It is doubtful that he can grant independence to even one Soviet "republic" and survive.

If the hard-liners in the Kremlin decide he is incapable of extinguishing the secessionist fires, they are likely to replace him.

That replacement could be someone who opposed everything he stood for, including his courtship of the West. Overnight we could find ourselves back in the deep freeze of the Cold War.

The other prospect, perhaps less likely, is that Gorbachev himself may resort to the classic stratagem of rulers who are bedeviled by intractible domestic problems - he may concoct a foreign "threat" to divert and reunify his people.

That doesn't mean he would launch a nuclear attack. He isn't a madman. But he might indulge in a little medium-grade saber rattling that would require us to respond. And such things can get out of hand.

These variations on a theme concern those of us who caution against too-hasty disarmament. And we resent being characterized as Cold War addicts with a compulsive need for some bogeyman to make our lives complete.

Personally, I would be delighted to cut military spending and use the savings to wipe out the budget deficit - although I doubt that those calling for deeper cuts would allow it to be used that way.

But the overriding fact is that the Soviet Union is still capable of inflicting grievous harm on our world, and Gorbachev's future is still far too iffy for us to cancel our deterrence insurance.

Mutual arms reductions are fine, but let's keep them mutual.

We must also bear in mind the fourth alternative, that conditions may change. In fact, they are changing dramatically in Eastern Europe, and not all those changes are benign.

We are discovering that virtually every nation in the Eastern bloc has slumbering grudges against its neighbors or internal ethnic problems. With freedom, those old disputes are flaring up again.

Before Eastern Europe settles into self-rule, it may pass through a period of chaos. In fact, it isn't inconceivable that troops of both the United States and the Soviet Union might even have to play a joint peacekeeping role there.

We disarmed too quickly after World War II and paid for it in Korea. This time let's wait till the dust settles.