Superpowers Target 3rd World Hot Spots : Summit: Forces backed by Washington and Moscow continue to kill each other. But both sides seem anxious to work out settlements to these regional conflicts.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While the Berlin Wall has been transformed into a symbol of freedom and Eastern Europe is rapidly casting off the cloak of communism, elsewhere the Cold War is still being fought the old-fashioned way: Forces backed by Moscow and Washington kill each other in Third World trouble spots from Afghanistan to El Salvador.

Yet, as President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev prepare for their shipboard summit meeting this weekend, both governments increasingly say these regional conflicts--once the staple of superpower rivalry--have become aberrations.

Each man is sure to urge the other to reduce the flow of military equipment into Central America and Afghanistan. However, in the new era of relaxed superpower relations, Bush and Gorbachev seem certain to emphasize opportunities for regional cooperation, not conflict, at their Dec. 2-3 meetings off Malta.

In the Middle East, for instance, Gorbachev has made it clear that he wants to play a more active role in diplomatic efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. And the United States, which once sought above all else to limit Moscow's influence in the region, has sent clear signals that it would welcome Soviet help in making peace.

"In contrast to the '70s, it is much more relaxed," Richard W. Murphy, formerly the State Department's top Middle East expert, said in reference to the U.S. attitude toward Soviet activities in the region.

Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York since he left government last January, said the Bush Administration's attitude is to stand back and challenge the Soviets to show that they can be constructive "rather than stiff-arming their attempt to take part."

In another era, such an approach might have been rejected by Moscow as condescending. In effect, the Soviets are being asked for proof of good intentions without being told specifically what is in it for them.

However, Gorbachev's government seems willing to play the game by the American rules. In an apparent effort to establish its good faith as a Middle East peacemaker, Moscow has called for moderation on the part of the Palestine Liberation Organization, urged Syria to abandon its hopes of gaining military parity with Israel and opened discussions with Israel about resuming diplomatic relations.

Moreover, Gorbachev seems to share the U.S. abhorrence of terrorism, ending a longtime Soviet policy of blurring the distinction between terrorism and acceptable political activity.

"In general, Gorbachev's policies have fundamentally altered the plight of any extremist group in the Arab world," said Frederick W. Axelgard, a Middle Eastern expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They simply have no leverage to gain from the Soviets at this point. That is very much in the background of everything that has gone on."

Beneath the surface, Washington has not entirely abandoned its skepticism about Kremlin intentions.

According to one well-placed source, the Administration earlier this year debated the wisdom of inviting Moscow to join the United States in mediating between Israel and its Arab adversaries. U.S. policy-makers concluded it was far too early to bring the Soviets into the peace process, because they have done very little to back up their conciliatory rhetoric.

William Quandt, a former National Security Council expert on the Middle East, said Administration officials are acting on the assumption "that Gorbachev and (Foreign Minister Eduard A.) Shevardnadze are the good guys and if they would only focus on the Middle East, there would be the same sort of dramatic changes in Soviet policy that you are seeing in Eastern Europe."

Under that theory, an entrenched Soviet bureaucracy continues to fight the Cold War in regions that escape the attention of Gorbachev and Shevardnadze while detente flourishes in areas where the top Soviet leadership takes an active role.

To be sure, the reality almost certainly is more complex. But Gorbachev has promised "new thinking" in foreign policy, and Bush is more than ready to put his rhetoric to the test.

In a recent speech, Secretary of State James A. Baker III accused Moscow of supporting "violence, destruction and war" through the shipment of arms to the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels fighting the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador.

"Shipments of Soviet rocket-propelled grenades to the FMLN are incompatible with the new thinking," Baker said. "Soviet behavior toward Cuba and Central America remains the biggest obstacle to a full, across-the-board improvement in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union."

Raymond G. Seitz, assistant secretary of state for Europe, said the "obvious contradictions" between Soviet rhetoric and performance are evident outside Central America as well.

Seitz said that in his talks with Gorbachev, Bush "will certainly want to find a more satisfactory answer" to Soviet behavior in the Third World.

The Soviet Union asserts that it has ended arms shipments to the leftist government of Nicaragua and that Nicaragua, in turn, has promised to stop arming the FMLN in El Salvador. But Moscow continues to send weapons to Cuba, its closest ally in the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. officials complain that much of the weaponry ends up with the Nicaraguan army and the FMLN.

Arthur A. Hartman, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, said Soviet policy-makers are "on the horns of a dilemma" in their dealings with Cuba and the rest of Latin America.

"They have a very strong old friend and ally in (Cuban President Fidel) Castro, and Mr. Castro knows how to play that role," Hartman said. "It's a case of a small power being able to maneuver--I mean, in effect, blackmail--a large power into doing things that perhaps on their own they wouldn't like to do."

Of course, both superpowers have for years sent massive supplies of weapons to their friends in the Third World. Moscow has outfitted the armies in Nicaragua and Afghanistan and the rebels in El Salvador. Washington has supported the army in El Salvador and insurgent forces in Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

In the very recent past, U.S. and Soviet proxies were engaged in shooting wars in all three countries. The war in Nicaragua now seems to have wound down in response both to the diplomacy of other Central American countries and to a U.S. decision to cut off military assistance to the Contras. But the fighting in El Salvador and Afghanistan goes on unabated.

Theoretically, Bush and Gorbachev could split the difference and cut off all military aid to insurgent groups. That would reduce the military pressure on the U.S.-backed regime in El Salvador and the Soviet-supported governments in Afghanistan and Nicaragua. But U.S. officials say the United States would never accept that kind of deal. From the U.S. standpoint, all the conflicts must be resolved on their own merits.

If trouble spots remain, the number has been reduced, in no small part thanks to Gorbachev's policies. Since the last full-scale U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Moscow last year, the superpowers have pulled back from conflicts in Angola and Cambodia.

Hartman, now a diplomat in residence at the Johns Hopkins University Foreign Policy Institute, said the atmosphere for U.S.-Soviet cooperation in the Third World is better now than it has been for years.

"It is easier now to talk to the Soviets about most of these problems," Hartman said. "You're beginning to see signs that in the Middle East, the Soviets are showing a more flexible and a more creative policy. They certainly encouraged the Vietnamese to get out of (Cambodia)."

Nevertheless, the Third World remains an arena for potential superpower confrontation. Although U.S. officials say Bush does not plan to permit regional conflicts to chill the atmosphere on the warships off Malta, the issue remains potentially divisive.

A senior Administration official said Moscow's Third World policy not only could damage U.S.-Soviet relations but is such a drain on Soviet resources that it threatens to torpedo Gorbachev's own economic reform programs at home.

"They right now subsidize Cuba and Nicaragua to the tune of about $7 billion a year," the official said. "They're subsidizing Vietnam to the tune of about $5 billion a year. They're spending in Afghanistan on the order of a little over $300 million a month.

"So, you go down the line, and suddenly you're talking about $15 billion to $20 billion (annually)," he said.

"For a variety of reasons, the Soviets are taking a more cooperative stance in major aspects of East-West relations than they ever did before," said Robert Hunter, a former National Security Council expert on Europe. "However, there remain major competitive aspects in our relationship."

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