Bold Bush move strikes chord worldwide Action was sought after Soviet coup

September 29, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The worldwide rush to embrace President Bush's arms-cutting initiative yesterday shows just how deep is the yearning for a bold Western response to the collapse of Soviet communism and virtual demise of the Soviet threat.

After Soviet reformers banished Josef V. Stalin's ghost in August, the belief spread that huge countervailing nuclear stockpiles were another Cold War relic and that the plodding, detail-driven pace of traditional arms control was outmoded.

The West needed to bolster those reformers with incentives to solidify democracy and a free market. Concern that instability in a collapsing Soviet Union could threaten centralized control of at least part of its nuclear arsenal also drove the United States to act.

The Soviet Union's short-range missiles are scattered among independence-minded republics and are less controlled than its strategic weapons. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney acknowledged yesterday that though there never seemed to be a threat from Soviet nuclear arms during the August coup, the future is less certain.

"What we can't be precise about is what kind of arrangements will exist in the future, two or three years from now," he said at a Pentagon briefing.

By acting when he did, Mr. Bush pulled ahead of an inexorable drive in Congress to cut defense spending and kept the flexibility to preserve a military more than capable of meeting diverse threats around the world.

The cuts he made complement a "new world order" military overhaul that emphasizes high-tech precision and training over megatons.

By acting unilaterally, Mr. Bush sought to demonstrate that the sole remaining superpower won't seek an overwhelming advantage and softened his own image as the president most willing to use military force since World War II.

The president first signaled his intentions just days after the Soviet coup, when he said at Kennebunkport, Maine, that events in the Soviet Union might make possible major strategic changes.

Characteristically, he avoided haste. He sent his secretary of state to the Soviet Union to assess the relationship between the Moscow power center and the republics that were spinning away. He gave his national security advisers time to develop an appropriate initiative.

While he waited, the Soviets sorted out at least a temporary form of government with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev as its head and became increasingly desperate for Western help.

Mr. Bush's view of the new Soviet power equation was reflected in a nuance of his speech Friday when he said he had "consulted with" Mr. Gorbachev and "spoke with" Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Mr. Gorbachev's reaction showed that the Soviets may not be any hastier in responding than Mr. Bush was in developing his initiative.

Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., called Mr. Gorbachev's reaction "tepid" and said it probably reflected the Soviet president's political weakness and traditional Soviet concerns about arms control.

As in the past, the Soviet leader embraced the concept but was noncommittal on specifics. Mr. Yeltsin seemed more forthcoming, speaking "in favor of identical huge cuts on the Soviet Union's side," the official Russian Information Agency reported.

Mr. Gorbachev has shown before that he will usually do what the West wants but needs pressure to make a decision. Mr. Bush might find Western food aid and the promise of economic help to be useful leverage.

But the president also wondered whether European nuclear powers would join in the cuts and whether the United States would at least consider joining in the long-term Soviet goal of a nuclear test ban.

He got quick reassurance from the British, who announced the removal of short-range nuclear arms from their ships. And French President Francois Mitterrand proposed a summit of major nuclear powers. But Mr. Bush apparently was unwilling to endorse a test ban.

The Soviets also have broader concerns, analysts said. They want curbs on submarine-based U.S. ballistic missiles and fear the long-term implications of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the "star wars" program that Mr. Bush made it clear Friday he does not intend to abandon.

That, said Spurgeon Keeny, president of the Arms Control Association, could be seen by the Soviets as an effort to gain fundamental military superiority and thus undercut the many sound parts of the Bush initiative.

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