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Cut Off the Ambush

December 29, 1987

If all members of the U.S. Senate vote on ratification of the U.S.-Soviet treaty on the elimination of medium-range and shorter-range missiles, it will take "nay" votes from 34 senators to kill the treaty. With the polls showing a lopsided majority of the American people in favor of ratification, it is unlikely that foes of the treaty can attract that much support. The real danger is that opponents will succeed in loading the agreement down with "killer" amendments that are deliberately designed to make it unacceptable to the Soviet Union.

The American people should let their senators know that they take a dim view of such gamesmanship.

The Senate, of course, has a constitutional obligation to look at the treaty's fine print, as well as at the negotiating record, and to ratify only if the agreement is consistent with national security. All evidence suggests, however, that the treaty will stand up under scrutiny.

The treaty provides for the elimination of one entire class of nuclear weapons, with the Soviets giving up about four times as many warheads as the United States. As a safeguard against cheating, the agreement contains unprecedented provisions for on-site inspections by both sides. There is a good chance, furthermore, that the pact will open the way to follow-up agreements on conventional forces and strategic nuclear arms.

The treaty is not perfect, of course. No agreement dealing with the complexities of nuclear-arms reduction can be. Such respected authorities as Henry A. Kissinger and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft worry that the removal of the missiles will make our European allies more subject to intimidation by the Soviets' numerical superiority in conventional, non-nuclear arms--a concern that is shared by many European defense planners. Other critics charge that verification provisions, though unprecedented in scope, will not provide absolute certainty that the Soviets are not cheating.

It should be noted that European governments, despite some misgivings, strongly support ratification of the treaty. So do Kissinger and Scowcroft on the ground that a failure to ratify would undermine confidence in American leadership and, as a result, severely damage the Atlantic alliance. And verification experts generally are confident that a significant level of Soviet cheating would not go undetected.

Barring unforeseen disclosures during the ratification process, the treaty on balance is clearly in the interests of the United States and should be ratified without crippling amendments.

Treaty opponents will try to put over amendments that would prevent the agreement from taking effect unless the Soviet Union met certain conditions: withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, or removal of restraints on Jewish emigration, successful negotiation of a strategic-arms-reduction agreement or an agreement by the Soviet Union to reduce its conventional forces to the Western level.

These are legitimate aims, and can properly be the subject of non-binding, sense-of-the-Senate amendments aimed at putting Moscow on notice that Americans want and expect further progress on arms control and other issues--and that if such progress is not forthcoming, the Soviets will not get the overall improvement in economic and political relations that they want and need.

If such amendments are passed in a form that would require substantial renegotiation with the Soviets, however, the practical effect would be to kill the treaty--and to make the stated goals even harder to achieve. That doesn't bother hard-liners whose interest lies in killing this treaty under the guise of "improving" it, and in sidetracking follow-up negotiations on other issues. They must not be allowed to get away with it.

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