Ever since Moscow made clear about four years ago that its top foreign policy goal was to scuttle President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, White House strategists have worried that some day a Soviet leader might offer a glittering package of offensive arms cuts--in exchange for canceling the U.S. anti-missile program.
Contingency planning for that awkward eventuality has been going on among national security specialists since well before Mikhail S. Gorbachev became Soviet leader in March, 1985.
Yet on Sunday, when Reagan finally faced just such a Soviet offer aimed at the missile defense system, popularly known as "Star Wars," he seemed to be taken by surprise. Despite years of planning, the President found himself in the position of looking like a man apparently unwilling to take "yes" for an answer.
It is not clear why Reagan, who said he was going to Iceland only to prepare the way for a full-scale summit, did not try to finesse the Soviet maneuver by welcoming it in principle but deferring decisions for careful consideration at the later meeting in Washington.
By allowing Gorbachev to force the issue of limitations on "Star Wars" to full consideration immediately, Reagan left himself in the position where he could only say "no" and walk away from a package of Soviet concessions by both sides described as a historic opportunity to reverse the arms race and slash both sides' offensive missile arsenals.
"The gambit of holding out enormous concessions on strategic weapons and making it all contingent on SDI is something the Administration has been concerned about for several years," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former White House and State Department expert on the Soviet Union and a veteran of the U.S.-Soviet summits of the 1970s.
"Maybe the Administration people didn't quite prepare themselves for it in Iceland, but it has been in the contingency planning for a number of years."
'Promising a Pot of Gold'
Sonnenfeldt said that in the past, Moscow had tried out the technique of "promising a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if you will only do such and such."
Thomas Thornton, a specialist in Soviet affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, said Reagan may have concluded that, if Gorbachev was as flexible as he appeared on reductions in offensive weapons, it might be possible to push for still more concessions.
"I assume that somebody told the President that he had Gorbachev by the nose and might as well pull some more," Thornton said. "Some people do not want an agreement anyway. If you believe that we can spend the Soviets into self-destruction, you don't want an agreement."
For the present, however, the dramatic failure of the Iceland summit will create potentially damaging problems for the Administration at home and abroad. While Gorbachev, as much as Reagan, refused to yield on what both saw as the crucial issue, the resulting problems are greater for Reagan because he must explain to disappointed arms control advocates--including the leaders of U.S. allies in Europe--why he let such a deal get away.
'Zero Option' Plan
According to U.S. officials, Gorbachev was prepared to accept Reagan's "zero option" plan to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe and was ready to go along with U.S. demands for a 50% reduction in long-range offensive nuclear weaponry.
He conditioned all this on one thing: U.S. acceptance of a proposal that Secretary of State George P. Shultz said would "effectively kill" the Strategic Defense Initiative, the anti-missile program that Reagan hopes will some day render nuclear weapons obsolete. The Soviet side wanted to limit testing of SDI to the laboratory, forcing the United States to forgo practical testing of some technologies.
The White House national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, said Monday that the U.S. side was astonished when Gorbachev pushed for a package deal covering all phases of superpower relations at a meeting that Washington had considered only a preliminary get-together.
And it is clear that in Reykjavik, Reagan came up against Soviet negotiating tactics of a kind Americans have seldom before experienced. While Moscow occasionally has tried the opposite approach, in previous years its favorite negotiating tactic was to hang tough and wait for U.S. concessions.
Secretive About Numbers
During previous negotiations on strategic weapons, for example, Moscow always refused to reveal the number of strategic arms in its own arsenal, so all references in the negotiations were to the U.S. count of weapons on both sides.
Also, in the past, the Soviets have been reluctant even to discuss proposals that called for destruction of weapons that had already been deployed.
A generation of U.S. negotiators chafed at such Soviet intransigence. But, as Reagan found out, it is not always easy to deal with the Soviets even when they are smiling.
Administration officials, including Reagan himself, have said that--regardless of "Star Wars"--they expect Gorbachev eventually to agree to deep cuts in strategic weapons to avoid a costly arms race that would derail his domestic economic programs.
However, Johns Hopkins specialist Thornton said that Soviet economic problems only serve to reinforce Gorbachev's determination to block the "Star Wars" program to spare Moscow the cost of matching what might become history's most expensive military program.
'In a Very Narrow Box'
"Gorbachev is in a very narrow box," Thornton said. "He may have more that he can offer because very few people put everything they have on the table. But he can expect a very unsympathetic reception from his military that will tell him he is throwing good money after bad" if he has to match "Star Wars."
Poindexter said the Soviets made it clear from the start of the weekend summit that they were unwilling to yield on missile defenses. Nevertheless, U.S. and Soviet negotiators conducted marathon sessions, including an all-night meeting of arms control experts after Saturday's summit sessions. They worked to hammer out agreements that ultimately were washed out by the "Star Wars" dispute. Each side apparently hoped that the other eventually would give in--but neither did.
Both Reagan and Gorbachev apparenty hoped that the other's domestic problems would force the final concession.