Chill Blows In From Iceland and U.S. Allies Shudder

Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The summit failed and it was Star Wars' fault." This is the summary message that has shocked people in Europe, both leaders and lead. As late as Sunday afternoon, reports from Iceland brought sunny expectations that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev would finally put to rest the vexing issue of Euromissiles. By nightfall, the President was back on trial in Western Europe for letting his Strategic Defense Initiative get in the way of a new detente.

As the details come out, the experts may conclude that Gorbachev was not prepared to bargain seriously. Perhaps Reagan the poker player was right to hold out for a better deal before trading away SDI. But in the age of television, which puts a premium on politics-as-theater, the President has clearly lost with the European allies.

At Geneva last November, Reagan won hands down in his first meeting with the Soviet leader. The contest was for the hearts and minds of the West Europeans. It turned on a single question: Is it possible to have productive East-West relations while the issue of Star Wars remains unresolved? When the summit ended cordially, the answer was clearly "yes," and European fears of Star Wars dropped dramatically.

Perhaps Gorbachev saw Reykjavik solely as a chance to turn the tables. He was clearly anxious to use this pre-summit summit as a means to change the agenda for a later meeting in Washington. Because of the affair over an American journalist held hostage in Moscow, human rights and political relations had eclipsed the Soviet campaign to make the United States look laggard on arms control. Gorbachev needed Reykjavik to get Star Wars back to the center of debate.

The surprise is, therefore, that the U.S. government seems surprised by Soviet tactics. Suddenly, the United States is again on the arms-control defensive. Suddenly, Star Wars is not just one issue among many but--at least in summit psychology--the sole impediment to progress.

At first glance, it is hard to see how Reagan can get back on the path to a summit without first showing willingness to compromise on SDI. The political fruits of a Euromissile agreement, waiting to be plucked on both sides of the Atlantic a few days ago, now seem to depend on the President's backing down on his single new strategic idea.

Many Americans, especially on the right, will recall that they warned Reagan against a quicky meeting with Gorbachev. They will mutter about the danger of going unprepared to the summit. But they will miss the point. Just as there was every reason to expect the Soviet tactic on Star Wars, there was reason to expect Reagan to be ready to deal on all key issues.

The political and psychological weakness of the current U.S. position might not matter so much if there were widespread understanding that the Strategic Defense Initiative is critical to American security. But the opposite is the case. No U.S. strategic departure in the postwar era has produced such a wide margin of critics over supporters. Nor is skepticism about Star Wars a particularly partisan stance. Republicans prepared to support SDI on its merits are almost as rare as Democrats.

Reagan's proposal has always suffered from confusion about what it is. For the President, it began as an effort to make the United States impermeable to missile attack, to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." No serious strategist is prepared to argue this case, and Reagan's rationale is passed over in embarrassed silence even by its supporters.

More worthy arguments were propounded for a form of SDI basically designed to protect U.S. missile silos against attack. The reasoning was respectable, although critics saw other means to gain the same result; one such means would be simply to reduce the Soviet threat. Perhaps Gorbachev's proposals to cut offensive nuclear weapons--thereby embracing Reagan's arms-control approach--do not specifically deal with the threat to U.S. silos. But what the Soviet leader has so far offered calls for negotiating that point, not for persevering with SDI.

At a time when the U.S. President has been rebuffed by the Soviet leader, there are strong pressures, both political and patriotic, to rally around the nation's leader. Yet many Americans see strategic merit, for U.S. security, in the Soviet proposal to constrain all but research into SDI. Thus the President is on poor ground to ask for support. On a matter of such gravity--for budgets as well as for the nuclear balance--it will be hard to argue that a bad idea becomes good just because the Soviets oppose it.

Of course, the outcome at Reykjavik may prove to be merely one more testing of mettle before the real bargaining begins. Both sides did characterize the breakdown more in sorrow than in anger. The diplomats at work off-stage may overcome differences and put a summit and arms control back on track.

But with such intense focus on the role that Star Wars played in the drama at Iceland--and with renewed fears that Reagan sees SDI as a cherished goal and not as a bargaining chip--Gorbachev has the edge.

In Western Europe, governments that stake their future on steadfast relations with the United States have taken a blow. In Britain and West Germany, whose governments are beset by opposition parties that are intensely anti-nuclear, standing firm with the American President on SDI research suddenly seems like a fool's bargain. Thus the United States is at a serious disadvantage, both in bargaining with the Soviets and in reassuring anxious allies. The wisdom of American leadership is being called to account.

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