''The sense that we and the Russians could compose our differences, enter into treaties reflecting a set of constraints, and then rely on compliance to produce a safer world -- I don't agree with any of that,'' Richard Perle told The Post almost two years ago.
Nobody who has worked with (or against) Perle on arms control over the past decade -- in the Senate when he was an aide to the late Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson or when he was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration -- would doubt that he meant every word of it. Yet the agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev are scheduled to sign this week derives in large measure from Reagan's own zero-zero INF offer in 1981. And Perle is widely credited with putting the president up to it.
How come? That's Perle for you; he loved the idea for the same reason that Alexander Haig now proudly boasts that he opposed it as ''absurd'' at the time. Both men, together with just about everyone else in the Reagan high command, were confident it was a non-starter.
So the laugh is on Perle, you might suppose. Last June he quit the administration to write a novel and a monthly column. He could see the Soviets turning around and the INF deal coming together. To hear him holding forth reflectively at a breakfast meeting with reporters the other day you might have thought Richard Perle's days as a one-man arms-control wrecking crew were done.
With Jackson's powerful patronage, he had fueled the fight against Jimmy Carter's nomination of Paul Warnke as arms negotiator. The margin for confirmation was humiliatingly close. Perle's formidable expertise provided the grist for the arguments of more than a dozen dissenting conservative senators in that fight, and again in the successful effort to thwart ratification of SALT II. With Caspar Weinberger's powerful patronage, he was the tireless spoiler of arms-control breakthroughs for at least 1 1/2 terms of the Reagan presidency.
Now he was saying that, really, he had been for the INF agreement ''from the very beginning'' and that ''basically'' he was for it now -- he just wanted to ''see the details.'' The Senate, he said, should look at the treaty ''line by line and inquire into its history and the logic of the positions taken -- that's what I did with Scoop.''
There was the tipoff. At this week's signing ceremony and at all the rest of the top-level talks and the pomp and circumstance, Perle will be on the outside looking in. But the scene will soon shift to the Senate, Perle's old stamping ground. And it will surprise almost nobody if Perle is found deeply engaged in the ratification proceedings, playing his self-styled role of ''constructive skeptic,'' doing his bit to make the ''technical business understandable to the political figures who don't mess with details.''
For Perle's purposes, it would not be necessary to defeat the treaty outright. It would be enough to prolong the ratification process by stringing out debate. That would seriously undermine the Reagan administration's efforts to move smartly along in the next three months to another summit next year, and a second treaty to bring about a 50 percent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons. The weight of Perle's prestige would also help mobilize support for Senate reservations of one sort or another to the treaty language that could effectively turn off the Soviets and chill further arms-control business in the Reagan presidency.
Perle already has a pretty good idea of just where the INF deal is flawed. He quickly ticks off weakness in the verification procedures that he thinks play right into the Soviets' natural instinct to cheat. He is convinced that the administration's pell-mell rush to meet the summit deadline will almost certainly have produced no end of nits ripe for picking.
He fears that the much-trumpeted breakthroughs in INF verification techniques will provide a poor precedent for the harder-to-verify terms of any START treaty. And so he wants no date fixed for a summit next year -- no more arbitrary deadlines. It is too late, he concedes, for the top men to ''revisit'' the terms of INF as it is now drawn up. But it is not too late for the Senate to fix defects, and there is no shortage of would-be fixers.
A loud, large -- but largely untutored -- Republican claque in the Senate is apparently convinced that its conservative standard-bearer, Ronald Reagan, has caved in to the commands of history and must be saved from himself. Private citizen Perle leaves one in no doubt that he is available for senatorial tutoring.