BOSTON. — Watching the two men sign the START treaty was a bit like witnessing Elizabeth Taylor's eighth wedding. God knows, you wish everybody well. But it's a little hard to get excited.
This U-turn in superpower relations pass the pens, uncork the champagne got us right back to where we started. Nine years of negotiations, and nuclear weapons were reduced by the amount they had been increased during the negotiations.
At the risk of being the cynic at the celebration, there was enough material to label this the Summit of the Absurd.
Absurdity One: The long-range nuclear weapons we all paid for turned out to be bargaining chips after all for the long-range nuclear weapons we all paid for. First we built them, now we take them apart. It's like an international game of Chutes and Ladders. Only deadlier.
Absurdity Two: At the end of the lovefest see Barbara and Raisa hold hands, hear George and Mikhail toast friendship relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were called ''nearly normalized.'' This is what normal looks like: 16,000 nuclear weapons pointed at each other. And no test ban.
Absurdity Three: Having helped to wreck the Soviet economy the arms race bankrupted them (moments) before it bankrupted us we may now have to help stabilize their economy. Nobody wants some Azerbaijani mayor with nukes in his neighborhood.
Absurdity Four: The U.S.S.R. is now declared a ''most-favored nation.'' But the U.S. is still paying for 300,000 men and women of the armed forces to protect Western Europe from its most-favored nation.
All in all, it's easier to name Liz's seven previous husbands Richard Burton twice than to unravel the mysteries of our own international relationships. But the central question is why we are still paying for the war we've won: the war against communism.
Coming down from the summit high, it's fair to expect that a Cold War win should bring home a victory dividend. A big one.
Not a few people, including members of Congress like Rep. Barney Frank, whose sense of the absurd is sharply honed, think that it's time to take back some of the tens and tens of billions of dollars that go to NATO.
The money was originally supposed to defend Western Europe from the Warsaw Pact countries led by the Soviet Union. But the Warsaw Pact no longer exists. Czechoslovakia and Hungary aren't exactly a threat. And West Germany isn't afraid of being invaded by East Germany they're one country.
As Frank pointed out in a recent speech, ''We cannot afford today to help Poland reach democracy. We are too busy spending money protecting France and Denmark from a Polish invasion.''
Of course there are still Soviet troops in Germany, but to lend irony to this theater of absurd, that's because the Soviets don't have housing or jobs for them back home. The Germans are now paying for the Soviet troops as a kind of foreign aid.
So, as Frank described the post-Cold War scenario: ''The American troops that are in Germany to protect the Germans against the Russian troops that the Germans are paying for, are being paid for by the American taxpayers.''
It should be noted, by the way, that West Europeans enjoy all sorts of social amenities like national health insurance that Americans are told we can't afford. We are spending our own money protecting them from a ''threat'' they no longer feel.
We are also spending some $5 billion unreimbursed tax dollars to protect the Japanese from the communists. We go deeper in the hole to pay for their defense and then we pay for their Toyotas.
My favorite line in this Summit of the Absurd came when Bush was lecturing the Soviets. ''People must be free,'' he said, ''to work, to save, to own their own home, to take risks, to invest in each other and, in essence, to control their own lives.''
That sounds like a Democratic campaign speech. It's not a bad prescription for what is needed here. Jobs, homes, savings, investments control over our own lives. A victory dividend is a good place to begin.
The pens they used to sign the START treaty were beaten out of scrap metal from old missiles. They make a nice souvenir. But it's much better to bring home the money.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.