IT'S REGRETTABLE but necessary that the Bush-Gorbachev February summit has now been put off into the spring. The meeting could have given a useful boost to the important business of a strategic arms reduction treaty and perhaps also to other items on the Soviet-American agenda. But aside from what hesitation may have arisen in the now-several minds of Moscow, Washington had its own reason to slow the pace. The Soviet crackdown in the Baltics, along with major reversals of reform across the Soviet scene, is forcing the West to think again about the Gorbachev-era premise of a growing identity of interests. At this point, the United States should be communicating as clearly as it can that a continuation of perestroika is the only solid basis for a deep and permanent transformation of Soviet-American relations. To return to the Brezhnev-era pattern where the United States tried to make a foreign policy partner out of a repressive Communist hack promises a dismal, unstable and risk-laden future.

The American government has not given up on Mikhail Gorbachev. Yesterday, for instance, Secretary of State James Baker depicted the Soviet leader as simply "wrestling with a number of problems, but that's nothing new." This is, of course, nonsense. In the repression in the Baltics, in retreats in other aspects of reform and in the evident slippage in Mr. Gorbachev's own position, there is plenty that is new -- and plenty that is unfortunate, verging on tragic. It may be tactically comprehensible that the United States publicly takes a hopeful view in order to preserve Soviet support in the Iraq war. But there can be no avoiding the broader requirement to prepare an American foreign policy fallback position no longer premised on the expectation of strong reform leadership in Moscow.

On Iraq, the new Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, raised American eyebrows. While pledging solidarity in respecting United Nations resolutions calling for the liberation of Kuwait, he deftly detached the Soviet Union from emerging American efforts to go beyond that goal and punish Iraq. What is notable is not so much this position -- the Soviet Union is entitled to its chosen policy -- as the minister's public underlining of the difference in Washington. Is the Kremlin opening up its own foreign policy fallback position? At a time when the American government is giving Mr. Gorbachev the benefit of the doubt and taking growing criticism for not being tougher on his Baltic crackdown, this is an odd way to react.