Nobody should have been surprised when, out of the blue, Ronald Reagan said a number of things about SALT II in a way that frightened, angered, confused or otherwise discombobulated critics at home and allies in Europe. He did the same thing with his flamboyant launching of "Star Wars."

Indeed, if articulation has anything to do with the art of communication, Ronald Reagan has to be the Least Great Communicator when it comes to certain issues. Give the president a moment of great emotion -- the loss of the Challenger, the D-Day commemorations -- and he can move humanity. Give him a tough and touchy issue like arms control and his capacity for setting off needless firestorms is as limitless as it is irremediable.

That is not, however, the same thing as saying, as some do, that his SALT II caper is altogether senseless. It is possible to plow through the record and turn up a reasonable case for what Ronald Reagan is doing to the SALT II agreement -- as distinct from the way he is doing it.

Allowance must be made, to begin with, for the fact that he does not work alone -- that he is often ill-served by handlers whose public and/or anonymous clarifications of their master's voice seem calculated to magnify misperceptions. It must also be conceded that putting the wrong questions is an invitation to simple-minded answers. To ask, for example, whether the presidential White House statement of May 27 that started the whole brouhaha means that "SALT II is dead" is to state the issue in a way that requires a tortuous journey back to basics.

If you assume that life for a treaty begins when it is ratified by the Senate, SALT II was dead on the Reagan administration's arrival. It is equally redundant to offer clarification, as the White House spokesman has done, by saying that "SALT II no longer exists" or that "we are no longer bound by it." Strictly speaking, SALT II never did exist. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was ever bound by it. The administration has not "torn up a treaty," which would be a pretty serious thing to do, because there was no treaty to tear up.

The proper argument has to do with whether the administration -- having chosen to abide by a treaty that Reagan profoundly believed to be "fatally flawed" -- should have proceeded to treat SALT II as a treaty for five years. The inevitable effect was to lull Americans and allies alike into the false sense that the nuclear arms race was in fact under the legal restraints of a SALT II regimen, however loose the restraints it imposed. Any abrupt change of mind was bound to be profoundly unsettling.

sk Hence the dire warnings of an arms race spiraling out of control. Critics argue that the various Soviet violations of SALT II were not serious enough to offset the benefits of the voluntary compliance on both sides to many of the treaty's terms. Former defense secretary Robert McNamara warns that "The entire structure of strategic arms control carefully laid down over a period of 15 years by four presidents . . . will be destroyed."

McNamara and other alarmists may be right. But it is usually prudent to listen to this administration's second thoughts. When the president was asked at his news conference "why make the decision now?" to "abandon" SALT II, he insisted he hadn't made the decision; he had merely said "we've got several months" to involve the Soviets in "a definite arms-reduction program" before a decision would have to be made that would constitute a conscious U.S. violation of SALT II.

Or consider the clarifications by Secretary of State Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, supposedly at loggerheads on the question of SALT II. Shultz, on "Meet the Press": The president "has decided that we will continue to follow a policy of thoughtful restraint, but rather than have that restraint be a derivative of a treaty that is increasingly obsolete in its concept, that has been violated by the Soviet Union, and that has never been ratified by the United States Senate and would have expired by now if it had been ratified, we will be guided by our observations of what the Soviet Union does."

And Weinberger, at a breakfast meeting with reporters the other day: "What we were trying to do was to adhere to the limits of SALT II in hopes of getting some sort of restraint from the Soviet Union. It is quite clear that . . . they were violating those limits. . . . From here on, our defense policy will be based on our own individual national security needs and not on any of the provisions of the expired and fatally flawed and unenacted treaty."

No big argument there; you could conclude that there is also no assurance of an accommodating attitude on arms control. But you cannot exclude the possibility of a reasonably coherent strategy to make future U.S. performance conditional on Soviet performance -- without necessarily breaking out of SALT II's bounds.