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America's Conservatives Mustn't Block the Fruits of Peace Through Strength

November 27, 1987|BEN WATTENBERG | Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

Yes, it will be difficult to totally verify the medium-range missile treaty (INF); yes, we should have had the details pinned down before we made a summit date; yes, in arms control the devil can be in the details; yes, INF is causing some nervousness among our allies.

Notwithstanding, the Republican hard-liners who are opposing the treaty are wrong--tactically, substantively, domestically and internationally. Many of them are generally responsible people. This time their actions are not.

Conservative action groups are gearing up for a fight to block Senate ratification. Four of the six Republican candidates for president are against INF: Jack Kemp, Alexander Haig, Pierre du Pont and Pat Robertson. Sen. Robert Dole is on the fence. Wisely, Vice President George Bush favors INF.

One wonders: Do the hard-liners realize just what they are throwing away politically? Conservatives have been making a case for decades that the way to negotiate with the Soviet Union is through strength. In 1981, when President Reagan proposed the zero-zero option, it opened up a global giggle season. For the President it must have been like modeling for that old ad, "They laughed when I sat down to play the piano."

The press and the critics had a field day.

We were told, "It was a phony proposal--Reagan wanted it to fail." We heard that "the Russians would never accept it." We were informed that "the West Europeans would never allow deployment." It was said that "Reagan doesn't really want a missile deal."

It wasn't phony. Reagan wanted it. The Europeans deployed the missiles. And the Soviets, facing strength, sat down and cut the cards.

The conservatives proved their case: Be tough and succeed. They had acquired a combination lock on the two best words in the presidential political lexicon: peace and strength. In political practice the term of art is "America needs a policy that is based on peace through strength."

This sequence should put Republican conservatives in the catbird seat. They should support INF, and when Democrats support it, too (as they will), the Republicans should be saying, "There never would have been a deal if we had listened to you Democrats. You were for a nuclear freeze. If we had frozen, the Soviets would have had a thousand SS-20 warheads, and we would have had no medium-range missiles at all. The Soviets never would have dealt. But we hung tough, and ended up with a real reduction."

The conservatives not only would have had the liberal Democrats on the defensive, but they also could actually have helped educate them.

Instead, the Republicans will be saying, "The verification procedures are no good, Reagan got snookered." Doubtful. If, as all agree, the actual military implications of INF are slim, then the likelihood of Soviet cheating (on a risk-vs.-reward basis) is small and not monumentally consequential.

More important, the verification protocols will probably be adequate.

The political advantage can now go to the Democrats, who will say, with merit: "These conservatives can't take yes for an answer. We're supporting Reagan's treaty. This proves that we must really be tough guys--after all, Reagan's tough. And we'll support more treaties like it--negotiated with patience and strength. We're for peace through strength."

In fact, those softish Democrats who originally only half-believed it may now (I hope) become true believers.

But the importance of this debate goes well beyond which side captures the partisan bonus in 1988. The issue concerns a strategy for diplomacy in the 1990s. What INF can lead to is that the idea of peace through strength does work. To establish that view in both of our major political parties and among our allies could establish rules of the road that might lead, indeed, to peace through strength. To throw that chance away is irresponsible.

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