WASHINGTON — Declaring "the Cold War is not over," President Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, said Sunday that the new Administration views Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's "peace offensive" with deep skepticism.
Scowcroft said that Gorbachev's announced plan to cut Soviet military forces and military spending is driven by "awesome" economic and political problems at home and is at least partly inspired by a desire to drive a wedge between the United States and Western Europe.
He said that one of the Bush Administration's first foreign policy priorities will be to chill the euphoria created by Gorbachev's initiatives and persuade the European allies not to be blinded by "wishful thinking" about Soviet intentions.
Gorbachev's moves represent "a recognition on his part that he badly needs a period of stability, if not definite improvement in the relationship, so he can face the awesome problem he has at home of trying to restructure that economy. That's his basic objective," Scowcroft said.
"I think, also, he's interested in making trouble within the Western alliance, and I think he believes that the best way to do it is a peace offensive, rather than to bluster the way some of his predecessors have."
In his first television interview in the new Administration, on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," the former Air Force general gave a sweeping overview of the foreign affairs challenges facing Bush in his first months in office.
Scowcroft said the Bush Administration will follow up on the Reagan Administration's opening to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, although he showed lingering skepticism about Arafat's motives in stating that he has renounced terrorism and accepts Israel's right to exist.
"It seems to me that the important thing is to try to probe and find out what Arafat has in mind and how sincere, in fact, this conversion is," he said.
Scowcroft opposed an early meeting between Arafat and incoming Secretary of State James A. Baker III, throwing a damper on a flurry of Sunday press reports from the Middle East that spoke of efforts to arrange such a meeting.
A state-run newspaper in Abu Dhabi said that Egypt has invited Baker to visit the region to pave the way for an international peace conference and meet with Arafat during the visit. A Saudi Arabian newspaper reported that consultations are under way to prepare for a Baker-Arafat meeting in Tunis in mid-February.
Arafat Meeting 'Premature'
"I think it would be premature to meet at such a high level until we have a better indication of where Mr. Arafat may be going," Scowcroft replied when asked specifically about the subject.
Scowcroft also said that the United States will conduct a deliberate review of defense and arms control policy before returning to strategic arms reduction talks (START) with the Soviet Union. Bush will not automatically adopt the Reagan Administration's negotiating positions, he said.
"We're not trying to slow down or delay . . ," he said, "but they're going to be our START talks, our proposals, and we have to make sure that, in fact, they are ours and we're comfortable with them."
Scowcroft also deplored the spread of chemical and biological weapons as a "very, very serious problem," but he admitted that he is not optimistic that it can be halted.
"It is a problem akin in its scope to that of nuclear proliferation because these weapons, especially in city attacks and in anti-population attacks, can be every bit as devastating as nuclear weapons, and they are much harder to control because the plants to produce them are, in many cases, like pharmaceutical plants, like insecticide plants. It's a terrible problem," he said.
Libya Chemical Plant
He would not say whether the United States is seriously considering a military strike to destroy a suspected chemical weapons plant under construction in Libya. "I'm not about to make that choice now," he said.
Scowcroft also said he is not optimistic about prospects in El Salvador, where the democratically elected president, Jose Napoleon Duarte, is in failing health and the violent right wing is experiencing a resurgence.
He said the situation in the small Central American country is analogous to that of 1981, when the Marxist-led insurgency began what it called a "final offensive" toward overthrowing the government that was met by bloody repression from the right.
Scowcroft's remarks about Gorbachev's skillful manipulation of opinion in Western Europe were echoed on the same television program by Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Nunn said Gorbachev's "rhetoric" would likely amplify calls in the United States and Europe for a reduction in defense spending and cuts in troop levels stationed on European soil.
Call for Alertness
"Gorbachev may unmake NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) if we're not alert as to what our future holds and if we're not certain that the (Soviet) forces have been reduced before we start relaxing in the alliance," Nunn said.
Nunn, whose committee this week begins confirmation hearings for former Sen. John Tower as secretary of defense, said that Tower is in for "some tough questions" about his personal life and possible conflicts of interest.
Since leaving the Senate in 1985, Tower has represented half a dozen major defense contractors as a Washington lobbyist and adviser. Questions also have been raised, although no charges have been proven, about alleged drinking and womanizing by Tower.
"We are checking into a lot of allegations floating around," Nunn said. "We're checking into the conflict of interest." But he indicated that Tower is "well qualified" and said he expects him to be confirmed.