WASHINGTON — George Bush, despite bipartisan advice to the contrary, seems ready to redefine arms control by emphasizing conventional and chemical negotiations and putting nuclear arms talks on the back burner.
The premises of a changing course are beguiling: Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's military reforms remain an uncertain basis for "deep cuts" in nuclear arms, conventional force reductions could lessen U.S. nuclear leverage and Soviet decline allows the United States to call the arms-control tune. There is also the view that Ronald Reagan's arms-reduction legacy is a fluke, seen by liberals as product of Reagan's opportunism and Gorbachev's initiatives and by conservatives as a sellout, an aberration, ripe for replacement by a more cautious approach.
Yet the Reagan legacy is consistent with the basic themes of American national strategy over the last dozen years: seeking deep cuts in nuclear forces while reducing the risks of inadvertent nuclear war and ensuring that arms control is not detached from U.S. concerns about regional conflict and human rights. Progress made in these areas by Reagan will be jeopardized by Bush Administration "bait and switch" tactics that attempt to substitute a chemical arms agreement for a strategic nuclear one.
Two realities further mock a postponement of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in favor of progress in the Conventional Forces in Europe talks and negotiations for a chemical weapons pact:
-- Before a START agreement, the Bush Administration cannot wisely make the urgent budget choices called for on two expensive bomber programs (B-1B and B-2) and two costly and uncertain missile programs (rail-mobile MX and Midgetman).
-- Americans and West Europeans are concerned about the nuclear dilemma; conventional forces cuts are not likely to come soon enough or be deep enough, in the first instance, to ease budget problems or impress voters in North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries.
The worthy efforts for a chemical-arms agreement do not respond to concerns of publics or security elites. Granted, chemical arms are weapons of mass destruction, but not of possible social or national destruction. There are no itchy trigger fingers capable of firing all our chemical weapons, should we decide the Soviets were thinking about firing theirs. Bush's vow last Oct. 21 had a hollow ring: "If I'm remembered for anything, it would be this: A complete and total ban on chemical weapons. Their destruction for ever. That's my solemn mission."
Such a pact would resound politically with the noise of a feather, doing nothing to satisfy the deep, if now muted, public desire for cuts in strategic nuclear weapons. Finally, Bush cannot deliver on his "solemn mission." Any country with a fertilizer plant can make chemical weapons, the poor nation's deterrent.
Against this backdrop, the case for ignoring the Reagan agenda needs testing; up close, the arguments don't add up.
Change in the Soviet Union. Soviet foreign-policy changes in the late 1980s--withdrawing from Afghanistan, paying U.N. debts, freeing emigration, settling regional issues and initiating arms accords--do not depend on Gorbachev. They stem from an elite consensus that previous policies were counterproductive and costly. Gorbachev is the agent of change, but the impulse for such reform predates his rise. Support from the military and lack of dissent from the Politburo indicates the trend will continue even if resistance to domestic economic reform ends in Gorbachev's ouster.
The consensus is that Moscow needs relief from security burdens and pressures to remedy chronic deficiencies of crisis proportions. Military leaders see economic stagnation and decline as long-term threats to Soviet security. They also entertain the notion that military exertions stimulate responses adding to insecurity and are trying to define a strategy of "reasonable sufficiency."
Western Leverage. "Go slow" advice to gain concessions in the conventional-force talks before a START accord on nuclear arms presumes the United States has nuclear bargaining leverage to alter a Warsaw Pact numerical edge in conventional forces. This neglects evidence of Warsaw Pact determination to achieve conventional cuts. With Moscow's support, the Warsaw Pact sought new negotiations for asymmetrical European force reductions in the first place, a change indicating readiness for concessions.
Further, nuclear-force cuts would not yield opportunities for resource transfers in the economically beleaguered Warsaw Pact nations, except the Soviet Union, and would not provide Moscow the industrial and manpower resources needed for economic reforms. Significant deactivation of conventional units drives Warsaw Pact interest in conventional-force reductions.