Assuming that all goes as expected with Secretary of State George Shultz's arms-control negotiations in Moscow this week, both President Reagan and Vice President George Bush will have plenty to shout about: the administration's first real disarmament progress after seven years; a triumphant summit meeting in Washington with Mikhail Gorbachev before the year is out.
A president with an eye to history and a fair number of foreign-policy blots on his copybook can hardly be expected not to make a great celebration out of the emerging global, ''zero-zero'' agreement on so-called intermediate-range nuclear forces, mostly deployed in Western Europe. A vice president with his eye on the White House can also be expected to bask in the reflected glory of an administration breakthrough on arms control.
So the president is already hailing the ''historic'' import of the first deal ever that wipes out a whole category of nuclear weapons, instead of simply seeking to slow the pace of the nuclear-arms race. And Bush is already claiming the high ground on an issue he clearly hopes will work against Republican challengers who have expressed some reservations about the impending INF treaty. ''This president,'' he promises, ''isn't going to do a dumb deal.''
On strictly military terms, this can hardly be faulted as a ''dumb deal.'' As Paul Nitze argued in a recent interview in his State Department office, it is overwhelmingly favorable to our side: in giving up their SS-20s, the Soviets will have to destroy some 1,400 warheads; the dismantling of the U.S. Pershing IIs and cruise missiles, which make up our INF, will cost us only about 480 warheads.
There is a qualitative asymmetry in our favor as well, though U.S. negotiators don't emphasize it. Out of consideration for political sensitivities of Europeans who don't want these weapons moved around the countryside, our INF is more or less immobile and, accordingly, a good deal more vulnerable than the moving targets presented by the Soviet SS-20s.
Nitze, who serves as arms-control adviser to Secretary Shultz and is both cagey and cautious in these matters, is positive that the military gains for the West more than outweigh the political and psychological factors: the perception that the physical removal of a significant American nuclear presence in Europe will ''decouple'' the United States from the NATO defense structure and weaken the weight of nuclear deterrence against a Soviet attack.
Both sides, it's agreed, are already moving to ''circumvent'' an INF agreement by retargeting longer-range, ''strategic'' weapons to carry out the INF missions. The administration's answer, says Nitze, is to move onward -- and upward -- to a START agreement reducing longer-range strategic weapons of almost every type.
But START bargaining is caught up in a nasty fight within the administration on how far to go in satisfying Gorbachev's proposal for negotiating limits on testing components of Reagan's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative. And the whole process is complicated by the possibility Gorbachev may choose to move onward -- but downward -- from INF to the shorter-range battlefield nuclear weapons that, absent INF, would threaten to confine the European nuclear battlefield to West (and East) Germany.
Such a ''triple zero'' Soviet effort to ''denuclearize'' Europe would be almost impossible for the West Germans to resist. But it would be equally impossible for the NATO allies to accept without some dramatic redressing of a conventional forces imbalance now heavily in favor of the Soviets -- and a capacity for ''verification'' that many believe is impossible to achieve.
These are the sorts of serious problems rightly raised by an impressive array of critics. But they are also, almost certainly, problems that will be unlikely to impress an American electorate that, according to the polls, favors an INF agreement by two to one.
So Bush is on sound ground politically. But he, and the administration, are on sound ground on the merits as well. Standing alone, ''zero-zero'' INF is not a ''dumb deal.'' It is rooted in a U.S. offer made by Reagan in 1981 which was based on a formula advanced by the Europeans and accepted by the NATO allies in 1979. To spurn it now would invite political and psychological problems of a different sort -- but ones no less difficult for allied leaders to deal with than those they will have to confront after the INF deal is done.