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Did Reagan Misfire on SALT II? : If Compliance Ends, So Will Predictability of Arms Race

<i> Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University</i>

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite slogans. To this must be added another: “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.” By this standard it is hard to fathom the President’s decision to cease compliance with the SALT II treaty later this year.

Arms control has never been this Administration’s first priority. Thus its top Pentagon expert is only a middle-level political appointee. In the State Department--save for Paul H. Nitze, a staff adviser--there is no master of the subject senior enough to merit presidential appointment. And the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency is now filled with so many military-minded foxes that there are few arms-control chickens left to devour.

Yet, until now, Reagan had kept his own counsel. He belied his reputation as a man who, to paraphrase Will Rogers, never saw an arms-control agreement he didn’t dislike. While arguing in the 1980 presidential campaign that SALT II was “fatally flawed,” he had followed its provisions to the letter for a simple reason: It’s in America’s interest to keep Soviet missile programs within bounds.

Ironically, by following an unratified treaty but not asking the Senate to give it legal force, Reagan left the United States at a disadvantage. Ratified, SALT II would require the Soviets to dismantle about 10% of their long-range nuclear missiles.

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It must be understood that Reagan has not yet scrapped SALT II, but rather has indicated that the United States will begin exceeding its limits (on cruise missiles) later this year. He also indicated that he would review his decision on compliance in light of Soviet reaction on arms control.

But it is difficult to see the President’s announcement just as a bargaining tactic, especially when so little has been achieved at the Geneva arms-control talks. His secretary of state, George P. Shultz, says that SALT II is now obsolete. His secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger, insists that any agreement be “absolutely” verifiable, which he knows is impossible. And various Administration spokesmen have been arguing that if we don’t abide by SALT II the Soviet Union might not increase its own nuclear weapons--an argument so implausible as to be naive. Alternatively, it is argued that even if Moscow followed the United States and failed to scrap its older missiles, this wouldn’t matter. Yet this Administration has raised a hue and cry about every increase in the Soviet nuclear threat, major or marginal.

With his announcement, Reagan is tampering with one of his cardinal tenets. He inherited a world less fraught with danger than in many years, largely because of the efforts of his predecessors. In the field of nuclear arms, reduced risk stemmed in large part from the existence of a regime for regulating the forward pace of developments. The chances of “breakout” were thereby reduced; a nuclear confrontation seemed almost impossible. The nuclear arms race had become more predictable, and thus less menacing.

To be sure, in the early part of his presidency Reagan indulged in rhetoric about “nuclear warning shots” and called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” He even embarked on a Strategic Defense Initiative that could in time call into question the understandings about nuclear offense and defense that have provided guidelines for preventing U.S.-Soviet conflict for two generations. But when decisions moved from words to deeds, Reagan always pulled back.

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It is hard, therefore, to see what the President has done as other than miscalculation or loss of control over subordinates who have continually tried to push him into a nuclear world in which there are few U.S.-Soviet standards for either measuring or imposing restraint. Perhaps repetition has finally convinced Reagan that the Soviets do “lie, cheat and steal” on all existing arms-control agreements--a refrain that does not square with American reluctance to explore with the Soviet Union areas of ambiguity or non-compliance that might thereby be corrected.

Most puzzling of all is the Reagan Administration’s willingness to revive fears in Western Europe, seemingly put to rest, that the United States does not place high value on trying to institutionalize limits on the nuclear-arms race. The allies have only recently relaxed after struggles over intermediate-range nuclear forces and SDI. Nerves are still rubbed raw from the U.S. air raid against Libya. And the Soviet nuclear-reactor disaster at Chernobyl has cast a political cloud over all things nuclear in Europe. In West Germany, Chernobyl may make the difference in key state elections, thus reinjecting the nuclear issue into allied politics.

After Chernobyl, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev tried to offset unfavorable opinion in Western Europe by proposing that Reagan meet him in Hiroshima to ban nuclear testing. The allies are thus mystified that Reagan’s response is to say that he will abandon the one set of limits on offensive nuclear weapons that does exist.

The best that can be said about the President’s announcement, therefore, is that it is not serious and is the reflection of bush-league bureaucratic maneuvering. The worst is that the Administration has still not learned basic lessons either about the value of predictability in the nuclear age or the demands of leadership in the Western alliance.

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