Whether knowingly or through failure to do his homework, President Reagan again is proving himself to be a master of obfuscation on a matter of extreme importance to the nation's defense policy and arms-control strategy.
When the President first announced his goal of developing a missile defense umbrella that would render ballistic nuclear missiles obsolete, the Administration indicated that a go or no-go decision on deployment could not be made before the early 1990s.
In recent weeks, however, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger argued that the "Star Wars" research program has proceeded more rapidly than expected, and that consequently the country should move toward the early deployment of a first-phase missile defense system employing both ground- and space-based elements. The Pentagon was also said to be arguing for the abandonment of the traditional interpretation of the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile treaty, which would prohibit testing of space-based elements of missile defense.
Various experts--including Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--warned that a decision for early deployment would be technologically premature. Others made the obvious case that reinterpreting the ABM treaty to allow extensive testing in space could destroy the agreement. This country's European allies, who have been promised that the ABM treaty would not be abridged without consultation, made known their own alarm.
Congressional visitors to the White House, however, got the impression that Reagan had bought the case for early deployment--and for a broader, more lenient interpretation of the ABM treaty that would allow testing in space.
Late last week the Administration passed the word that a presidential decision had been put off indefinitely. But informed people in both Congress and the Administration prophesied that the President would ultimately give in to the hard-liners and signal a go-ahead for early deployment.
Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote Reagan a letter Friday warning that a precipitate decision to abandon the narrow interpretation of the ABM treaty would provoke a constitutional crisis.
Over the weekend the White House seemed to have got the message. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, stating specifically that he was speaking for the President, said that no decision concerning deployment would be made within the next two years; he also said that the interpretation of the ABM treaty would not be changed without consultation with both Congress and allied governments. Weinberger seemed to agree.
On Monday morning a White House spokesman let stand the pledge for consultation with Congress and the allies--both of which can be counted on to oppose both early deployment and a reinterpretation of the ABM treaty. But he strongly indicated that the broader, more lenient interpretation of the treaty would henceforth govern Star Wars research and development.
It is easy to conclude that Weinberger has again prevailed in Administration in-fighting, and that Reagan in fact is prepared to ignore the objections from Congress and allied governments. Some knowledgeable observers, however, are convinced that Shultz won the main battle, and that the question of reinterpreting the ABM treaty has been indefinitely postponed along with the question of early deployment.
As to where the truth lies, only time will tell. It is quite possible, even probable, that the President has not really made up his own mind. Which is a helluva way to run a railroad--or the government of a major world power.