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Bigger Stakes

December 08, 1987

By putting their names to a piece of paper, President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev will start one of the more solemn debates of the age today.

The issue will be U.S. Senate ratification of a treaty to be signed this afternoon that commits both nations to destroy thousands of medium-range nuclear missiles that now both guard and threaten Europe.

The stakes will be far higher than the treaty itself. Senate acceptance would clear the way for vastly larger reductions of missiles far more threatening to each nation and the world than the relative handful of shorter-range weapons covered by the treaty at hand. Rejection would stop in its tracks a move by both sides to reduce not only missile stockpiles but also the concern that the big missiles might one day be launched in anger.

The debate will be messy. Hard-liners like the one who branded Reagan a "useful idiot" through which the Soviets are working to get their way may well break new ground in hysteria while trying to show that the procedures for verifying that the Soviets are living up to the treaty are too soft to be effective. Supporters of the treaty will face the always more difficult burden--disproving a negative.

They will have to say that the process for catching violations will not be perfect but thatboth countries are feeling their way with agreements that actually reduce weapon stocks rather than limit their growth. They will have to argue that it sets new precedents for arms control, including a long-term exchange of on-site inspectors and the right to demand on short notice a look at suspicious facilities. Above all, they will have to make certain that the debate concentrates on whether the treaty is strong enough to prevent Soviet lapses that would cause this nation military problems.

But, hysterical as it may become, the debate will be useful. There was little debate on SALT I in 1972, and none at all on SALT II in 1979. There are no boundaries to debate on the newest treaty. Witnesses can, and should, probe well beyond verification into such questions as the way in which removal of medium-range weapons from Europe will affect America's allies and their defense strategy. The debate should go on to cover the effects, if any, on relations between Eastern and Western Europe and, in turn, the hold that the Soviets have on their Eastern Bloc neighbors. The debate should examine closely the relationship between this treaty and the hopes of signing, sometime next year, a new one to make deep cuts in the stockpiles of intercontinental missiles. Neither the Senate nor the American public should lose sight of those larger stakes.

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