Is Reagan Pulling a Bluff With SALT II?

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

Ronald Reagan began public life as a labor leader. Skills he learned then--bluffing opponents, compromising only at the 11th hour--have been evident in later years. That may explain confusing statements about the future of the second strategic arms limitation treaty. To wit: He will exceed its limits on nuclear weapons later this year (May 27); he hasn’t made that decision now (Wednesday), and “the SALT Treaty no longer exists” (presidential spokesman Larry Speakes on Thursday). The world now waits to see whether Reagan is a clever negotiator or simply the prisoner of zealots.

At issue is whether the Administration will stop dismantling older nuclear weapons each time a new deployment would push the United States above the limits set in the unratified 1979 arms treaty. U.S. weapons programs are still in compliance and will be at least until November, when the 131st B-52 bomber equipped with air-launched cruise missiles would breach the limits.

Calling the future of SALT II into question now, without immediate practical effect on weapons deployments, has already imposed political costs. In Congress the whole gamut of Administration strategic programs, including research on the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” is being given new scrutiny. The House Foreign Relations Committee has rejected the President’s position on SALT II. And the West European allies are baffled that he has gratuitously made himself the target of abuse, replacing the Soviet leadership and its bungling over the reactor accident at Chernobyl.

By the President’s lights, however, the gamble has already paid off. Within hours of his initial announcement, Moscow changed its position on SDI--although in the Soviet system, the decision must long-since have been made. Provided that the United States will agree to extend for 10 to 20 years the anti-ballistic missile treaty, with its ban on deploying strategic defenses, the Soviets would sanction ambitious research programs. It would be more forthcoming on Reagan’s cherished “deep cuts” in offensive nuclear weapons.


Furthermore, the Soviets now reportedly have agreed to exclude, from any count of weapons, certain U.S. nuclear-capable bombers based on aircraft carriers and in Western Europe. This is a practical step in superpower relations, as contrasted with the offer by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to conclude a ban on all nuclear testing. Since the Administration resolutely rejects a test ban, Gorbachev had his eye on the news, not the negotiating table.

Reagan’s words on SALT II and the Soviets’ offers on arms control go beyond substance to a renewed jockeying for position over the next superpower summit meeting. Thus Reagan took the unusual step in his press conference Wednesday of retracting an ambiguous slur against Gorbachev, made in a speech two days earlier when the subject was Nicaragua. He also left himself two means to gracefully back down from the threat to breach the SALT II limits, though not to save the treaty. The Soviets could stop violating it--a charge oft repeated but rarely analyzed. Or they “could meet us now with regard to solving the very things they’ve been proposing--arms reduction.”

At some point, however, preparing the way for serious arms control talks or a summit must be translated into positions that can be negotiated, with a team that can do the job. Reagan the labor leader couldn’t forever just be for higher salaries and benefits. Reagan the President can’t just be for deep cuts in offensive nuclear arms, plus the incompatible objective of making those arms “impotent and obsolete” through Star Wars. In both jobs, posturing may be good politics but neither gets results when issues are complex.

However well-intentioned the President may be, he has so far failed to prepare the way to turn aspirations into arms control. Even a chief executive obsessed with the subject must turn to his staff to craft the positions, suggest the compromises and do at least the basic bargaining. Yet Reagan cannot count on his current team even to support his declared arms control objectives, much less provide the dedicated and detailed advice to help him get what he wants.


This point was underscored during congressional testimony by the key Pentagon official on arms control, Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle. Rather than trying to build support for the President’s approach, Perle admonished the Congress, in words from a bygone era, that it would either “stand with the Administration or stand with the Soviets” on the SALT II question.

The first clue to Reagan’s real agenda will be whether he begins changing his advisers on arms control. If he fails to do so, his enemies within will surely win the day. They will never prepare a deal that he could then cut with the Soviets. Indeed, should the President’s gamble fail--should the Soviets refuse to play the arms control game by his rules--then SALT II will still “no longer exist.” The opponents of arms control who have the upper hand in the Administration would be free to find new ways to confound presidential wishes.

There is virtue in taking a President at his word. Reagan says he wants an agreement and knows how to get it. He can now be judged in his terms by his deeds. If he will make himself master in his own house, then ending allegiance to SALT II could still prove to be part of a successful effort to replace it with something better.

But failing that fast-fading hope--failing a conscious change in Reagan’s style of governing--the superpowers will be left without an agreed standard of measure for the continuing arms race. Even friends sign contracts to avoid misunderstandings. For enemies whose misunderstandings can prove fatal, there is folly in leaving all to chance.