President Bush's bold unilateral move to eliminate or downsize hair-trigger nuclear weapons systems that have become anachronistic and even counter-productive is further evidence that he is at his best in shrewd management of U.S. security interests. Statecraft is always a race to keep pace with reality, and in this case Mr. Bush's timing is exemplary.
Tactical nukes based in Europe with ranges incapable of reaching the Soviet Union lost what little credence they had with the breakup of the Warsaw Pact. Now, as an instrument of NATO's outdated flexible response strategy, they would hit only the soil of eastern German (newly incorporated in the alliance) and Eastern European nations that have broken free of Moscow's control. No wonder German Chancellor Helmut Kohl campaigned against them and thwarted the ill-conceived Reagan plan for upgrading short-range Lance missiles.
The president was wise to pair his cancellation of land-based tactical weapons with a strong reiteration that the United States would preserve "an effective air-delivered nuclear capability in Europe." Although he did not mention Korea, the prospect of a continuing U.S. tactical air strike capability may be reassuring to the Seoul government as it loses land-based short-range nukes while still facing an implacable Communist foe.
Mr. Bush made his move in the tactical sector only when the unraveling of central authority in Moscow made the existence of Soviet nuclear-tipped artillery shells in the various republics a clear and present danger. While Washington believes Moscow's control of strategic forces is assured, it knows that short-range weaponry is less reliable. By adopting a stand against tactical nukes long advocated by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Mr. Bush may have opened the way for quick reciprocal action by Moscow. As a leader who has made his mark primarily through his willingness to use force, he now can claim a major peace/disarmament breakthrough.
The president's initiatives on strategic weaponry are more ambiguous, despite the dramatic orders to stand down round-the-clock readiness of long-range bombers and some land-based intercontinental missiles. This move leaves intact the entire nuclear submarine fleet, with its Trident missiles, and all land-based ICBMs not slated for the scrap heap by the START agreement.
As a maritime, two-ocean nation, the United States naturally inclines to sea-power. The Soviet Union, with its very limited access to the sea, is inherently a land power that has concentrated on development of a huge and potent land-based nuclear force. Hence, when Mr. Bush calls for negotiations to eliminate all land-based ICBMs with multiple warheads, he is asking Moscow to get rid of the most important part of its nuclear arsenal.
Mr. Gorbachev's response in this area, despite his general praise of Mr. Bush's "positive, very positive" proposals, indicates that much bargaining lies ahead. Mr. Bush did move ahead unilaterally in the strategic sector by canceling mobile systems for both the MX and Midgetman missile systems. It is just too bad that the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations wasted billions trying to find a mobile basing mode for the MX missiles. These mighty, multiple-warheaded monsters now will remain in hardened silos -- a prime target if there ever should be a strategic attack on this country. For both superpowers to get rid of such offensive, first-strike weaponry, Washington may have to give up a goodly portion of its sea-based deterrent.
Perhaps the beginning of such a policy can be seen in the president's decision to withdraw nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from all Navy surface ships and attack submarines. These unverifiable weapons have long been a problem, not only because they complicate the arms control process but because they cause trouble in Japan, an unwilling host to U.S. nuclear-armed ships. But it is a big jump from such tactical
weaponry to the strategic Trident fleet, which remains intact.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney rightly described the Bush initiative as "the single biggest change in the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons since they were first integrated into our forces in 1954."
Resort to superlatives, however, should be approached with caution. While a hefty two-thirds of all U.S. tactical weapons will be eliminated, only 5 percent of the strategic inventory will be added to the forces already on non-alert status. While there is heady talk of abandoning long, tedious arms-control negotiations nTC in favor of unilateral done-deal decisions, major bargaining on strategic forces will still be necessary. While the president's decision to set up a unified strategic command is commendable, the Navy and Air Force will find ways to continue their incessant rivalry.
Democrats can be counted on to intensify their drumbeat for major cuts in defense spending. Having anticipated the dropping of a mobile system for the MX, they now will have a stronger case against the B-2 bomber. Missile defense, a concern to the Russians, will also be under attack despite administration warnings of accidental or rogue launches from Third World powers. But, once again, Republican Bush has seized the high ground in foreign policy from his domestic adversaries.
What is most impressive in Mr. Bush's performance was his boldness in responding to sweeping changes in the world scene. More than any president since Harry Truman, he is sensitive to the concerns of allies; even more than President Truman, he is also sensitive to the imperatives driving policy in less friendly nations. By coalescing these factors into a policy that promotes U.S. interests by making the world a safer place, Mr. Bush is clearly reaching for a high place in history.