WASHINGTON — Apparently seeking to minimize the impact of his failed Moscow mission, Secretary of State George P. Shultz denied Sunday that the United States is being "jerked around" by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. And he went out of his way to avoid charging Gorbachev with bad faith for refusing to set a summit date as expected.
"All I can see is that he changed his mind, or is uncertain," said Shultz diplomatically. At the same time, he said, it was the Soviets themselves who had created the expectation that a summit would be held to sign the almost completed agreement to eliminate intermediate nuclear forces. Asked on the NBC program "Meet the Press" whether Gorbachev has not demanded a change in the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative as the price of attending a summit, Shultz replied:
"He didn't say it the way you said it. . . . There's no point in painting him into a corner."
Carlucci Also Reluctant
Frank C. Carlucci, President Reagan's national security adviser who accompanied Shultz to Moscow last week, was also reluctant to charge the Soviets with reneging on previous stands. He came very close to doing so, nonetheless, on the ABC program "This Week with David Brinkley."
"They had led us to believe that an INF (medium-range missile) agreement was sufficient for a summit," he said, "but Gorbachev upped the ante." Asked why he did not accuse the Soviets directly of "breaking their word again," Carlucci said: "They did reverse their position. I'd prefer not to characterize it in pejorative terms."
Carlucci told The Times on Saturday that, despite refusing to set a date, Gorbachev repeatedly said in Moscow that he wanted a summit. "Maybe we can have one in December," he said, according to Carlucci.
Shultz and Carlucci met with Reagan at the White House on Sunday afternoon to report on the Moscow talks. A White House spokesman said others attending the meeting were Howard H. Baker Jr., the White House chief of staff; his deputy, Kenneth Duberstein, and Carlucci's deputy, Colin Powell.
U.S. to 'Stay on Course'
Both Shultz and Carlucci emphasized that the United States intends to "stay on our course" despite Soviet changes in position. The Administration will not allow the Soviets to make the summit meeting itself a bargaining chip, Shultz said.
"If he (Gorbachev) waits too long," Shultz added, "maybe we won't be ready" for a summit. When pressed on the point, he explained that the Administration leaves office in January, 1989. "As we get into the (1988 presidential election) campaign, it would be no time for a Soviet leader to be here," he said.
The two senior officials also said the Soviets had cited opposition in Congress to the Administration's Strategic Defense Initiative, a program of research and testing of space-based missile defenses, and to the initiative's broad interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In those positions, most Democrats in Congress are closer to the Soviets than to the White House.
Asked if Gorbachev mentioned the possibility that the next American president could be a Democrat, Carlucci said, "He made some comment to the effect that if we didn't agree, he might have to deal with the next Administration.
"On the other hand, he also has said he would like an agreement with this Administration because he knows it would have a much better chance of getting ratified (by Congress)," Carlucci said.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Gorbachev probably changed his mind for several reasons, including sincere concern about the U.S. "Star Wars" program, as the SDI is often called, and his awareness of Reagan's domestic political difficulties last week.
But, he said, "Gorbachev made a fundamental miscalculation" in believing that he could "play the summit card for a U.S. concession" on SDI.
Nunn also said "the lack of a summit this year may be a blessing in disguise" because the medium-range missile agreement is still not ready, despite substantial progress. He cited "terribly difficult technical, but important, verification problems to be worked out." Solutions to the verification issues will be a precedent for the much more significant accord reducing strategic offensive arms in the future, he noted.
Possible Political Static
Among other explanations offered for the Soviet move is that Gorbachev has encountered political opposition in the policy-making Politburo to the pace and substance of his arms proposals, as well as to the prospective summit.
Additional evidence for this view emerged last week when U.S. officials in Moscow learned that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze appeared to get his hands slapped by the Politburo after his visit here in September and his subsequent U.N. visit.
The Kremlin's top policy group "approved" his U.N. activities but only "noted" his work in Washington. It was during the meeting here that the Soviets inserted in the final communique the expectation of a summit after completion of the medium-range missile accord.
Any Politburo slap at Shevardnadze for ostensibly going beyond his instructions would probably also have been a criticism of Gorbachev, since it was highly unlikely that Shevardnadze and his delegation would get so out of step with Gorbachev, analysts here said.
Whatever the speculation, Shultz and Carlucci both said they saw no evidence that Gorbachev was under domestic political pressure. Gorbachev did say he had to consult with the Politburo on at least one occasion, Carlucci noted, but it appeared to be a pro forma consultation with colleagues.