Bush: tall in the straddle

William Safire

April 19, 1991|By William Safire

WHEN THE president's press secretary opined that his boss did not have to have an arms treaty all set to sign in order to meet at the summit with Gorbachev, two groups were horrified:

The sniveling, save-Gorby-from-the-baddies arms-control establishment (you know who you are)want a summit linked to a START treaty because that will pressure the White House to accede to Soviet demands.

The ultra-suspicious, press-'em-till-they-cave, unreconstructed cold warriors (we know who we are) want to dangle the prospect of a summit, which Gorbachev needs, to induce him to keep treaty promises made in days of wine and glasnost.

This crossfire caused Marlin Fitzwater, behind the curve on this arcane negotiating stuff, to flip-flop the same day, calling for a summit conditioned on a treaty.

Joked President Bush later, "I'm backing both of Marlin's positions."

Here's what the president should do on troop withdrawals and arms reductions:

1. Stick to your guns on putting the withdrawal of conventional forces from Europe (CFE, which we want most) ahead of a treaty on strategic missiles (START, which Gorby needs to lock in his nuclear advantage).

Moscow has pulled a fast one on us by breaking its word on troop withdrawals. After the deal was struck, the Soviets renamed three divisions of army troops "naval adjuncts" -- pure bad-faith dealing. Gorbachev now grandly offers to settle for half his subterfuge; if Bush buys that, he sets himself up as a patsy right down the line.

We should insist on an end to "data denial" -- the Soviets' pretense that they have in place only half the tanks and artillery we can count. When we gave them the list of their own forces to be reduced, the Soviet negotiators froze.

2. After credibility is re-established on previously agreed troop pullbacks and tank destruction, remove the non-starters stopping START.

This means dismissing "down-loading," the unverifiable Soviet promise to load only two warheads on submarine ballistic missiles already proven able to hold seven.

Do not let them sell new wine in old bottles. Ronald Reagan won a real reduction by half in the number of huge SS-18s targeted on the U.S. But the Soviets tricked us by vastly improving the accuracy of the remaining half: pre-agreement, two Soviet warheads were needed to take out one of our hard targets, but now it's down to one.

Thus, the "reduction" in missile numbers does not reduce their threat to destroy our ability to retaliate.

3.Stop treating those substantial disagreements caused by the Soviets' duplicity, and their resistance to on-site inspection of mobile missiles, as mere "technical differences."

The more Bush minimizes the made-in-Moscow difficulties, the more Gorbachev will say "then let's split the difference." (The moment James Baker hears the word "split" he says, "Where do I sign?") It's no negotiating victory to come out half-tricked; let's not permit the Soviets to disavow agreements.

Now to the original question: Should a summit be linked to a treaty-signing?

Yes, we should let Gorbachev strut the summit stage if he delivers on his agreement to reduce conventional forces in Europe without renaming the army the coast guard.

No, we should not tie the summit to a START treaty because that would help him pressure us. If he wants to sell a lowball warhead count on his subs and modernize his SS-18s, we can apply intolerable economic pressure to stop such trickery by speeding the development of our nuclear shield.

The hard-line plan: First get a CFE treaty. Then agree to hold a summit for its signing. There, while boosting each other's ratings, squeeze him on Baltic independence.

Regale his handlers with what Tibet's courageous Dalai Lama says about human rights, and on Kurdistan, hold an enclave conclave. Assure Gorby of trade only after a command economy stops bankrupting his confederation.

Then, in that wide-ranging context, reassert the need for a verifiable, Senate-confirmable deal to really reduce his strategic missile threat.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Time.

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