President Reagan tried to explain in person Wednesday why he is turning his back on the SALT II arms-control treaty. He was even less persuasive on television than he was when he put it in writing last month, and the written effort itself made very little sense.
His message at the press conference was that he is prepared to scuttle SALT II because the action might somehow lead to reductions in nuclear weapons. He complained that members of Congress who oppose the new policy do not understand what he is trying to do. Small wonder.
Reagan was at least less outrageous, and more vague, than Richard N. Perle, the Pentagon bureaucrat who has emerged as Reagan’s head coach on arms-control avoidance. Perle, an assistant secretary of defense, explained the policy shift to Congress last week by telling its members that they had a choice on SALT II: They could stand with Reagan or stand with Moscow. While Reagan insisted on television that no final decision had been made, Perle seemed to think that it was settled, telling Congress that it was rubbish to think that the arms race would intensify without SALT II.
As viewers could tell on Wednesday, explaining why abandoning an arms-control treaty will make the United States more secure is a tall order--even for veteran explainers at the State Department.
Without limits, the Soviet Union could expand the explosive power of its nuclear arsenal faster and with less effort than could the United States. If the Soviets have been cheating on weapons and tests with a treaty, the field for building and testing anything that comes to their minds would be wide open without a treaty. Technically, the treaty died last December, but until Reagan’s decision both Moscow and Washington had pledged to honor it as long as the other did.
Specialists in defense agree that there have been Soviet violations, but they disagree over whether the violations are serious. The White House calls the violations “grievous.” Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says that in military terms the violations “don’t amount to a hill of beans.”
Aspin is one of several members of Congress who want to write nuclear-arms limits into the defense budget so that the Pentagon could not buy any piece of equipment that would breach the terms of SALT II.
Even if the limits in the defense budget were non-binding--a shot across the White House bow, as some members see them--that would be going too far. Congress has properly impinged on Administrative policy in such isolated cases as funding for the Nicaraguan contras and money for anti-satellite weapons, but a SALT II defense budget would be too broad and too clumsy. There is a better way to bring the broad issue of arms control to a head and to a decision.
The President has taken his position. It is an absurd and dangerous position for the nuclear world of the 1980s, and it should become a major issue in the November elections for the House and the Senate. Americans should make it clear to him this fall how absurd his position is by votingfor Republicans and Democrats who see arms control as an essential factor in keeping the nation’s guard up without breaking into the dead heat of another arms race.