American officials watching Poland's continuing crisis move into a dangerous new phase fear that the Reagan administration's preoccupation with budgetary matters here will overwhelm chances to develop an effective U.S. economic strategy for helping to ease the situation there.
A number of officials interviewed expressed a sense of frustration that the United States, for understandable domestic political reasons, seems unable to concentrate the attention of its leaders or financial resourses on Poland at a time a historic challenge to communist authority is unfolding.
"Can you take money away from student lunches and give it to Poland?" asked one specialist in an attempt to summarize the situation in Washington.
Officials say events in Poland are unfolding so swiftly that there is really very little the United States can do other than continue to warn the Soviets to stay out and urge the Poles to solve their disputes peacefully and by themselves.
Nevertheless, diplomats and other specialists say privately that the Reagan administration is operating primarily on an ad hoc basis and that nothing resembling a longer-term economic strategy for dealing with the situation has been worked out.
"We haven't even begun to address the underlying economic mess," is the way one official put it.
In addition, while the United States provided Poland with $670 million in credit guarantees for grain and some smaller economic aid projects in the fiscal year which will end next week, there is at this time nothing on the books for fiscal 1982 for Poland in those same categories.
Perhaps most importantly, there are key differences in outlook in the Reagan administration about money and history.
For example, among the specialists, the predominant view is that the free trade and democratic movements in Poland are of extraordinary historic significance.
In this view, Poland must be kept moving toward liberalization, but not to the point that things get out of hand, the Soviets move in, and the movement is crushed. Thus, an economic strategy is needed that first could contribute, along with allied help, to keeping things under control and then develop into a longer-term program.
Soviet intervention or stern internal Polish communist party crackdowns would make good propaganda for the West.
But one official, referring to the liberalization that flowered and then was crushed in Czechoslovakia in 1968, said, "I think you could argue that you could have gotten a lot more out of the Prague Spring if it continued, and that the ultimate impact of a liberalized Poland would be much greater in the long term than the temporary glee taken in the spectacle of Soviet heavy-handedness."
On the other side, many officials say, is a narrower but nonetheless powerful and influential view, especially in the president's Office of Management and Budget, that domestic economic considerations in this country make it difficult to do much for Poland or even think much about it. "The question that still has to be addressed," one official said, "is how much is the Polish situation worth."
On top of this, there are some in government arguing that Poland is, after all, a communist country and the Russians should clean up their own mess; that Poland's economic crisis is endemic and the United States would be throwing good money after bad with big new aid or credit programs, and that if Poland's economy improves it will be the Soviets that benefit. While these views are said to be a minority, they nevertheless contribute to the problem of agreeing on a strategy.
The views of the OMB, and its director, David A. Stockman, are expected to be crucial because several possible economic aid programs that could be considered--even emergency measures or requests to Congress for supplemental appropriations--would have to go through his office first. Last night the Senate passed and the administration accepted $5 million in food and medical aid for the Poles.
At the moment, specialists believe Poland will require $700 million to $800 million next year in credit guarantees for grains and other economic assistance.
This year, Poland got the largest single chunk of guarantees from the Agriculture Department's Commodity Credit Corp. But next year, sources say, it doesn't look as if Poland will get any CCC help. For one thing, the CCC is not meant to provide guarantees in the face of virtually certain default, since that means the U.S. government would have to pay. For another, the CCC regulations require repayment in three years and in dollars, another requirement Poland is unlikely to be able to meet.
Thus, working level officials in several agencies are trying to put together an aid package outside of CCC that perhaps could have longer-term repayment and in Polish currency. But this will require dollar outlays and run into the fundamental dilemma of an administration that is in the process of cutting school lunches and other U.S. social programs and a White House budget office that is widely viewed as a "stumbling block" by those who feel more should be done for Poland soon.