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Signals on Arms Control

January 29, 1989

President Bush may have been conducting a form of arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union during his televised press conference on Friday.

Early arms-control theorists worried that formal negotiations between Washington and Moscow eventually would get so technical and so bogged down in bureaucracy that they would collapse. Writing in 1960, Tom Schelling and Morton Halperin of Harvard University suggested that a series of displays of restraint on both sides might be the only way to achieve arms-control goals if that happened. Instead of written agreements, the superpowers would send signals to one another saying, in effect, "We could be building or deploying this weapon or that, but you will notice that we are not doing so."

Congress experimented with such a signal of restraint in the mid-1980s, banning tests of weapons designed to destroy satellites in space (ASATs) as long as the Soviet Union did no testing of its own. The signal of restraint worked. The Soviets have not tested an ASAT since 1982.

In his press conference, Bush endorsed something that former Sen. John Tower (D-Tex.)said about the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as "Star Wars," during hearings the day before on his nomination to be defense secretary.

"I don't believe that we can devise an umbrella that can protect the entire American population from nuclear incineration," Tower said. Asked about the comment, Bush said: "If he's talking about a shield that's so impregnable that it probably eliminates the need for other defense, I probably would agree with him."

Scientists have been saying for years that building a shield is beyond their skills and that it may always be. But Administration officials were mum concerning the point while President Reagan was still in office, partly because he believed in the shield and partly because Americans will not be nearly as willing to pour $4 billion a year into research on an umbrella that would leak missiles like a sieve.

Most Soviet scientists seem to be satisfied that Star Wars is out of reach. But Soviet soldiers and politicians, starting with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, are reluctant just to take their scientists' word for it, and they want to limit tests of defense weapons.

Star Wars has enough conservative support to make it tough for Bush to put any such limits in writing. But he could signal restraint on Star Wars, leaving Congress to back him up with cuts in research funds. It would be a bold departure from the traditional White House approach to arms control, but you may have seen it happen Friday.

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