American policy toward Poland and the rest of Soviet-shadowed Eastern Europe wallows in sticky inconsistency. Much of the time we can put it out of mind, but the imminent visit of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to the U.N. forces the issue, at least in the minds of people who care about the Poles.

Jaruzelski is a heavy in dark glasses, often reviled as a Soviet stooge for imposing martial law four years ago and lifting it only in a form that keeps Solidarity down. Yet Poland is freer today under his hand than it was four years ago, than it was 10 years ago, than the Soviet Union, whose leader is already something of a Western matinee idol, has ever been. There is more leeway for individuals from writers to farmers, more independence for institutions such as the Catholic Church, more connections to the West. All this despite the 250 or so political prisoners and the prevailing sullenness.

But Poland is only now -- and more in Europe than here -- beginning to slip back into good international company. Jaruzelski's U.N. trip is a first, but he will see no American officials. Day-to- day relations of Warsaw and Washington are grim. Sanctions imposed after martial law are only slowly being lifted. The administration has formally removed its political objections to Polish entry to the International Monetary Fund -- membership means credit and a Good Housekeeping seal -- but the Fund senses an American weight, and the process of entry drags on. Warsaw desperately needs new money to recover from sanctions and from its own disastrous economic policies, but the money barely trickles in.

What's the problem? Poland is a country with a strong ethnic lobby and traditional firm claims on American sentiment, a country whose communist government is imposed but, by Soviet standards, light-handed. A year ago a break in the clouds seemed possible, but the moment was lost.

It is not enough to say that Jaruzelski is stained with martial law, that he is the foil of the elements -- the church and Solidarity -- for which Westerners feel great emotion. Nor is it enough to say that Poland is a poor credit risk. Many people I talk to -- some in the government -- have the feeling that the United States may have overdone it. There is regret that we Americans, intent on keeping pressure on Jaruzelski, are helping crush down the Polish people. Yes, Jaruzelski opposes sanctions. Solidarity's Lech Walesa and Cardinal Glemp question them too.

The discussions of who is to blame for this state of affairs are unedifying. What interests me more is the confusion of American goals. What do we want in that history-drenched Eastern Europe? Can we see our way clear?

One candid answer comes from Evan Galbraith, Ronald Reagan's first ambassador to France. He complains that career diplomats in successive administrations, including the one he served, have been chasing the hare of d,etente in East Europe, foolishly settling loans, trade and technology upon some governments there on the theory that this was the way to wean them from Soviet rule.

It bothers Galbraith that pursuit of d,etente bestows unearned legitimacy on Soviet client regimes. It seems to evade him that people live in East Europe, people whose lives can perhaps be a bit eased by their rulers' traffic with the West.

The State Department says it is traditional American policy to encourage what currents of nationalism and liberalization flow in East Europe. It was responding to both of these currents in Poland when it started relaxing sanctions last year -- a relaxation interrupted, the department suggests, when Mikhail Gorbachev "turned them around, squeezed them."

Yet the State Department policy- aper line of "differentiation" is a bit too smooth, and may not touch the sources of policy that lie at sub-bureaucratic depths. For there is a sense in which the careful cultivation of East European nationalism and liberalization puts the United States in the position of building socialism in Eastern Europe; of lightening the Soviets' imperial burden.

One strand of our multi-ply connection to East Europe is, the worse the better: play hardball; discredit communism; heavy up the Soviet burden even though it may add to popular misery; keep faith with those who strive for freedom; expect repeated revolts.

A second strand is, the better the better: help the East Europeans gain a somewhat better life and longer leash, even though it may ease the tasks of Soviet control and dull the region's quest for true individual and national dignity; support gradual reform over explosive revolt -- "explosions undercut reform."

Let us at least ponder these choices and remember that, either way, the people of East Europe pay.