In every U.S.-Soviet confrontational crisis, there is usually a lull, during which a number of observations appear: that the crisis is exaggerated or a misunderstanding; that it is somehow the fault of the United States; and -- in any case -- that there must be urgent negotiations to reach some compromise if only for the sake of easing tensions. Such observations have been heard in recent weeks, and we now seem to be moving toward negotiations to "neutralize" Afghanistan in order to provide an open door for a graceful Soviet retreat.

Indeed, the idea of neutralization and negotiations seems closely linked to several dubious conclusions about the Soviet invasion: that is was the work of the sinister Soviet marshals who overrode the more prudent Kremlin doves (how these doves keep their jobs decade after decade is amazing); that the decision was taken while Brezhnev and Kosygin were on sick leave; that Soviet motives were purely defensive; that they hopelessly miscalculated; that they are stuck in a quagmire; that Brezhnev is desperately groping for a guarantee of neutrality that would then produce a Soviet withdrawal.

Speculating about the mysteries of Soviet decisions is fruitless, but by encouraging some of these myths and eagerly pressing the negotiating option, the Carter administration is sending confusing signals that weaken its stated objectives.

The Europeans have been the most active advocates of negotiations for neutralization. Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, has been a prime mover, arguing the "considerable urgency" of the situation and persuading his colleagues in the European Community to issue a formal statement on neutralization. He even has gone so far as to invoke the spirit of 1907, when the Russians and the British partitioned Iran into spheres of influence and established Afghanistan as a "buffer state" outside the sphere of Russian influence (it was the Russians who insisted on the term "buffer state," which the British rejected as too ambiguous). Carrington argued that, if the Soviets actually fear for their own security, his proposal would overcome the "difficulty"; he has handed over to the Russian ambassador a note outlining the European proposal, and one assumes Washington approved and urged him on.

The Europeans, however, support the neutralization proposal for reasons quite different from those of the United States. Whereas the United States initially floated a neutralization proposal in order to be "proven wrong" (i.e., a tactical ploy), the Europeans are looking for an escape from the painful decision of whether to support the United States in punitive measure against the Soviet Union. The Europeans -- the British excepted -- have come to accept detente on the continent as a permanent feature of the political landscape; German policy is built on the assumption of a continuing special relationship with the East, if only because of the unique problems of East Germany and Berlin. Paris, of course, pursues its cynical course, delighted to distance itself from Washington, to enhance Europe's independent voice and strengthen France's distinct position in Moscow. The smaller countries are always alert to dangers of new confrontations in Central Europe. The British, in fact, have been tougher than their colleagues in the European Community. But in general, for Europe, negotiations are a substitute for confronting the Soviets with the consequences of their adventure in South Asia. In this sense, negotiations may either become another source of division between Washington and its European allies or seriously weaken the credibility of the U.S. response to the Soviet invasion.

The Soviets, of course, understand this. Their hints of negotiations are directed toward the Europeans; in this connection it is noteworthy that Ambassador Andrei Gromyko recently softened Soviet opposition to negotiations about European theater nuclear weapons; now the Soviet precondition is not the reversal of the NATO decision to accept American cruise missiles and Pershing II rockets, but only the deferral or suspension of the implementation.

As for the neutralization of Afghanistan, it is very, very doubtful that the Soviets will withdraw without first attempting to secure the communist regime. They may toy with negotiations -- and certainly will set an exorbitant price for any withdrawal. Gromyko and his able staff may dust off some of the old peace-zone plans. One might expect the Soviets to probe for restrictions on the type of military aid to Pakistan, withdrawal of naval forces from the Indian Ocean, prohibition of foreign bases in the area, neutralization of Iran, and a guarantee of American non-interference and, of course, a definition of neutralization that will perpetuate the puppet regime in Kabul.

The asking price for negotiations might be a lifting of the Olympic boycott, and perhaps even resumption of the American grain sales. The Soviets are past masters of protracted talks; meanwhile, they will try to consolidate their position on the ground in Afghanistan.

Despite the obvious pitfalls, the United States cannot simply brush aside any idea of talking with Moscow. At some point there may be some advantages in negotiations, but not now. It is worth remembering the American objective as stated by the president on Jan. 20: "Letting the Soviets know in a clear and certain way, by action of our own country and other nations, that they cannot invade an innocent country with impunity; they must suffer the consequences."

Promoting a vague negotiating option risks diluting this crisp message. It would be better for the United States to insist on firm preconditions: namely, that the Soviets must set a date certain for their withdrawal. This is the issue, not the international status of Afghanistan. If neutralization means discussing how to guarantee the Soviet clients in Kabul should the Soviets leave in the distant future, it is a reckless and dangerous enterprise.