President Bush had to take over the controls from his nuclear experts in late May to keep the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from tearing itself apart over short-range nuclear weapons. He deserved a better result for his effort. And he may have to take over the controls again to get it.
The issue that threatened to ruin NATO's 40th birthday party in Brussels was whether West Germany should discuss cuts in short-range missiles with the Soviets on its own or wait until or the United States was ready. Bush's advisers took the view of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that NATO members should not break ranks and that West Germany must wait.
To prevent West Germany's acting on its own, Bush proposed a delay in short-range missiletalks until other negotiations could lead to cuts in tanks, troops and other conventional battle forces facing each other along Europe's East-West border, a task he said should take only six months to a year.
At the time, that made good theoretical sense. Any requirement for battleground nuclear weapons depends on the size of the ground and tactical air forces against which they would be used. A ground force so small and so structured that it was good only for defense, not for attack, might well eliminate a need for short-range nuclear weapons. But the same theory would hold true for START talks on the most dangerous of all nuclear weapons, the big intercontinental missiles. If the threat of ground attack is minimal, so is the need for a deterrent nuclear force.
The Brussels plan was designed as a shelter to protect NATO from itself, and for that it worked quite well for a few weeks. Each NATO member could insist that all others were doing what each member thought was right. But the shelter was not built to resist pressure from the outside, and that is what Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev continues to exert.
In a warmly applauded speech in Strasbourg last week, Gorbachev returned to the issue of short-range nuclear missiles, offering to cut Soviet short-range weapons in return for nothing but the beginning of negotiations on them. The applause was warm because most short-range missiles would be land on Europe if they were ever used.
Bush declined the offer, saying that he does not want to depart from his plan. Unfortunately, that is nearly the same thing as saying that there cannot be any treaty unless there is every treaty, a proposition that turns the shelter into a trap.
Worse, there is no apparent movement on START talks, negotiations that were very close to an agreement when Bush took office months ago. The impression of lethargy on START is emphasized by Bush's recent notion that the Soviets and the Americans should talk about verifying compliance with the treaty before they try to reach agreement on the treaty itself.
Bush has not been well-served by his defense advisers. The Pentagon still is not clear, at least in its public statements, about what mix of American weapons and troops it wants at the end of a decade or more of building down from the Cold War levels of military strength. Behind-the-scenes arguments among nuclear strategists over which weapons on the Pentagon's list are bargaining chips and which are not remain to be settled.
Bush probably can count on Gorbachev's being patient while Washington works out its strategy. The Soviets cannot stay in the nuclear arms race and still salvage living standards at home that are headed down. Bush also can count on Gorbachev's reminding Europe of his offer on short-range missiles.
The president has nothing to lose by agreeing to talk about short-range nuclear missiles. He has everything to lose by letting Gorbachev whittle away at popular support for NATO. Bush will have to take away the controls from the experts again.