A knowledgeable official of the Reagan Administration, mulling over the obstacles that still stand in the way of a new strategic arms control agreement, remarked the other day that the window of opportunity--assuming that one exists--will close in about 18 months. If substantial agreement has not been worked out with the Soviets by that time, the whole issue will be put over to the next Administration.
Experience suggests that he is right.
Foreign-affairs specialists have long noted that a U.S. President can conduct serious diplomatic business with the Soviet Union during only two years--three in the case of a reelected President--of his four-year term.
A President's first year is spent getting acquainted with the realities of arms control and other problems, and in trying to come up with approaches that are different and "better" than those of his predecessor. During a President's last year, which ends with a presidential election, partisan considerations tend to dominate the negotiating process and the political atmosphere in which it occurs. Essentially, that leaves only the second and third years for fruitful endeavor.
We are now a year and a half into President Reagan's second term. He and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev at last seem to be moving toward serious negotiations. A month ago the Soviets submitted a revised strategic arms reduction proposal in Geneva; Reagan has given the package a warm though conditional welcome, and expresses optimism that a deal can be struck.
There is a very real danger, however, that time will run out before anything is accomplished.
One problem is that Gorbachev's offer, while making some helpful concessions to the American viewpoint, would leave intact the large fleet of superheavy, multiple-warhead Soviet missiles that are of special concern to the United States.
Another problem is that the Geneva negotiations have become ensnarled with the question of a second summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. And here the Soviets, while talking a good game, still seem to be holding out for prior concessions by Washington as a pre-condition for such a meeting--a tactic that the Administration is resisting. As a result, it is unlikely that a summit session can be held before the year's end--leaving only about a year in which to wrap up difficult negotiations.
The biggest problem of all, however, is that the Administration has been unable to agree on a negotiating position. The President himself, while unwilling to restrict "Star Wars" work to the laboratory as Gorbachev proposes, has suggested a willingness to negotiate some kind of restraints on the deployment of such a system. A compromise should be possible. But Star Wars zealots within the Administration, backed by those who simply want to block an agreement, do not want the issue on the negotiating table at all.
Some of those directly involved in the debate doubt that there will be a clear-cut resolution of this issue in time for a summit meeting. If that is the case, the prospects for an agreement during the Reagan presidency go glimmering.
Some experts believe that the Soviets have already decided that they can't get the kind of deal they want from Reagan, and are just maneuvering for propaganda advantage while waiting for a new Administration in Washington. That would be unwise, since there is no guarantee that the next President wouldn't be a more difficult negotiating partner than Reagan.
Both sides should give the process a helpful shove. The Soviets should stop stonewalling on summit preparations. Washington should accept the Soviet proposal for an early meeting to clarify the bottom-line meaning of Reagan's recent repudiation of the unratified SALT II treaty.
Most fundamental of all, Reagan should make up his mind once and for all that Star Wars is negotiable, then order his subordinates to stop their bickering and support a negotiating position embodying this decision. Otherwise we can all forget about a new arms-control agreement for several years to come.