Bush's Nuclear Legacy

January 05, 1993

President Bush has every right to feel gratified by the giant steps on nuclear disarmament that have occurred on his watch, the culmination being the START I and II treaties to reduce superpower strategic arsenals by two-thirds in the next decade. He has every right, too, to hope President-elect Clinton does not make the mistake he committed early in his administration by letting diplomacy with Moscow lag to the detriment of a detente-minded, democracy-minded Russian leader.

In Mr. Bush's case, the delay stemmed from a perverse "status-quo plus" strategy that helped undermine the position of former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In Mr. Clinton's case, there is a determination to concentrate (in his words) "on the work I have to do here on problems in America" -- an attitude that is of acknowledged "concern" to Russia's embattled president, Boris N. Yeltsin.

Actually, there is no urgent business requiring an early Clinton-Yeltsin summit. But there is psycho-political need a-plenty. Not only would this keep the pressure on Ukraine, whose stockpile of nuclear weaponry gives it a sort of veto on implementation; it would also help Mr. Yeltsin in his fight against hardline lawmakers who are charging that START II is a "sellout" of Russia's interests.

If START I and START II are to get started, plenty of American dollars will be required to destroy the arsenals of former enemies. So far the U.S. Congress has appropriated $800 million for Russia and three other nuclear states: Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. This, however, is peanuts. In response to a U.S. offer of $175 million, Ukraine is demanding $1.5 billion. Russia's allotted $400 million has to be considered a very small down payment on the sums that will be required.

All this spells trouble for the Clinton administration, which will soon be wrestling with sky-high deficits, vast unmet needs at home and the burden of policing much of a restless world. To allot anywhere near the funds required will be a hard wrench for the next president. The cost of doing enough will have to be balanced against the much higher cost of a possible return to confrontation.

Although the START pacts will be merely promissory notes until put into force, they are truly "treaties of hope" and all the other good things Presidents Bush and Yeltsin described at their final triumphant yet wistful meeting. They will get rid of the most terrible weapons ever built -- land-based intercontinental rockets armed with clusters of warheads, each of which could obliterate a city the size of Baltimore. They codify the end of the Cold War and the undeniable fact that Russia is economically and militarily subordinate to the United States. And they set a disarmament example that should encourage more nations to give up their nuclear fantasies and sign on as genuine members of the Non-Proliferation Agreement.

What has been done embellishes the Bush legacy. What remains will have much to do with history's judgment on Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.

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