Ends Define Means as Candidates Battle Over Who Won Missile Debate

Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal

When the Reagan Administration first proposed the "double zero" option to remove all intermediate- and short-range nuclear missiles from Europe, liberals condemned this as a sham so patently advantageous to the United States that the Soviets would never agree. During years of stalemated negotiations, the liberals looked like prophets.

Then Mikhail S. Gorbachev did agree.

What happened? The answer to the question "Who won INF?" could influence the conduct of the Cold War for years, just as the question "Who lost China?" helped lock in the bipartisan consensus behind anti-communist containment after World War II. At this potential fork in the road, the two parties are offering antonymous explanations for the breakthrough.

Except for the small group of conservatives staunchly opposing the treaty, Republicans maintain that the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty validates President Reagan's formula of "peace through strength." As Vice President George Bush frequently says, "Strength and steadiness are what brought the Soviets to the bargaining table to negotiate seriously." To the Republicans, the INF Treaty proves that the Soviets only agreed to reduce arms after the United States has created expensive new weapons systems.

With only Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) leaning toward the Republican analysis, the Democratic field flatly rejects that conclusion. Instead, the Democrats maintain that Gorbachev was driven to the treaty because his economy simply can no longer afford the Cold War, with its massive military budgets--and the U.S. trade and budget deficits suggest we face the same problem.

Even the Democratic explanation for the treaty provides a grudging tribute to Reagan's policy since Administration strategists such as former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard N. Perle always believed that an aggressive arms race would cause the Soviet system to overheat. The real question dividing the parties is whether the U.S. economy is now starting to show similar strain.

The logical corollary of the Republican argument is to continue squeezing as much money out of the economy for defense as possible, both to pressure the Soviet system and to force them to further arms reductions. The Democratic case argues for using all means available--from arms control to spending cuts to increased demands for burden-sharing by U.S. allies--to reduce the drag of the defense budget on the U.S. economy.

No one is certain why Gorbachev finally embraced the double zero, but the Democrats may have trouble selling their explanation of economic duress to the public, which generally trusts the maxim of peace through strength. While the public wants talks with the Soviets, it also insists that the United States negotiate from a fortified position.

So although a survey conducted for the World Policy Institute found that a narrow plurality rejected the view that the arms buildup had produced the treaty, it's not likely that view would stick once a Republican nominee begins making the alternative case. "Would people understand the intellectual considerations of that (Democratic) argument? Yes," said Democratic pollster John Marttila. "Would they agree with them? Yes. At a political-emotional level would they believe this was the reason (for getting an agreement) as opposed to peace through strength? No. By a margin of 2-1, I would guess."

Just as important, the hearings on the treaty may demonstrate an internal inconsistency in the Democrats' emerging national-security platform. So far in this campaign, the Democrats--except Gore--have built their national security policies on two foundations: nuclear arms control and the principle that the United States must more closely balance its sprawling military commitments with its stretched economic capacity to pay for them. The INF Treaty offers an uncomfortable reminder that those two goals are not always compatible.

Since World War II, nuclear deterrence has helped keep the peace in Europe on the cheap. Replacing the nuclear deterrent with conventional forces would be enormously expensive--as the Pentagon is already reminding the Senate. "To the extent the treaty represents an American policy of substituting conventional for nuclear defense, it is (fiscally) unrealistic," said David P. Calleo, author of a recent book on U.S.-NATO relations.

Moreover the treaty probably makes it tougher to compel the Europeans to pick up more of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's cost. At 7% of gross national product, the United States proportionately spends twice as much on defense as the NATO nations, and virtually all presidential candidates in both parties have joined experts such as Calleo in demanding that Europeans reach deeper into their pockets. In American politics, NATO allies are assuming the role of international welfare queens.

But the INF Treaty will stifle those cries--at least temporarily. On the instant of its signing, U.S. leaders began looking for ways to convince uneasy Europeans that the treaty doesn't herald a decoupling of U.S. security from the Continent; that's hardly the most inviting backdrop for muscling more money from the allies. And once the missiles are removed from Europe, it will become virtually impossible to discuss also removing some U.S. troops--the one way to significantly cut the cost of sustaining NATO.

But if the treaty points out the flaws in the Democrats' equation of arms control with fiscal restraint, it may also provide them with an unexpected opportunity to broaden the foreign-policy debate. Conventional wisdom decreed that the treaty hurt the Democrats because it denied them the arms-control issue. And polls now show the Republicans are more trusted to negotiate with the Soviets. But some savvy Democrats believe they haven't lost anything, because their nominal advantage on the arms-control question was always illusory.

As Marttila notes, since World War II, the foreign-policy debate has narrowly focused on the U.S.-Soviet relationship, and the public has always considered the Republicans more capable of managing that competition than the Democrats.

Marttila and other Democrats argue that the treaty, by diminishing tensions with the Soviets, could open the way for discussion of other foreign-policy concerns, such as the Democratic case about the economic cost of waging the Cold War. The public already ranks the Soviets relatively low on its list of foreign-policy fears. Asked to pick the greatest threat to the nation's security in a survey last fall, Americans ranked Soviet aggression seventh--behind tension in the Persian Gulf, nuclear proliferation in the Third World, terrorism and, perhaps most significant, U.S. economic problems.

If Gorbachev's overtures continue to reduce the American public's fear of the Soviet Union, the shift Marttila foresees may come--eventually. Already, the persistent trade deficits are focusing U.S. anxiety on the economic threat posed by the Japanese rather than the military threat represented by the Soviets. And to the extent voters define national strength in economic rather than military terms, the Democrats' case about the economic cost of the Cold War will ring with greater resonance.

Such changes in the firmament of public opinion won't occur overnight--and probably not in time to help the Democrats deflect the Republican presidential nominee's inevitable claim that the INF Treaty has conclusively proved the wisdom of pursuing peace through strength. Ironically, though, the intractable budget deficits seem guaranteed to force the next President--Democrat or Republican--to restrain the cost of national defense. An image of strength is one legacy Reagan has bequeathed the Republican party; but budget deficits are another, and in the long run, they may be more telling.

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