WASHINGTON — Bush Administration negotiators will resume superpower talks on strategic arms reductions in Geneva on Monday, six months after the talks recessed due to the change in U.S. administrations, with only "relatively minor" alterations in the position inherited from the Reagan Administration, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Friday.
However, President Bush and his chief advisers will spend the weekend at Camp David discussing possible major new modifications to the U.S. proposal, probably on whether mobile land-based intercontinental missiles (ICBMs) should be permitted under a strategic arms treaty, U.S. officials said.
If they come up with any significant changes in policy, they would seek approval from key congressmen first before revealing them and cabling them to negotiators by Wednesday when the first formal plenary session for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks is scheduled. A new proposal would enable the Administration to hold on to its new-found momentum in the U.S.-Soviet competition for arms control initiatives, the officials said.
A senior Pentagon official indicated that congressional commitments will have to be substantive before the Administration will agree to significant modifications of its positions on mobile missiles, however. What kind of commitments the Administration would want was left unstated.
The Administration also wants to test in advance a system for verifying any limits on mobile missiles, to ensure that an agreement can be effectively policed, the Defense Department official said. Whether this concept is sufficiently advanced to be presented to the Soviet negotiators in Geneva was not clear, however; nor is its acceptability to the Soviets.
While the idea has "some panache," one source said, it does not address any of the major issues still outstanding in the START negotiations.
"There may be very little here in the end or it may be a big deal," a knowledgeable State Department official said of the Administration deliberations on the new talks due to get under way Monday. "It is most important to get new positions which will be supported in Congress and then reinforce them by having them reflected in our negotiating stance, rather than adopt new positions which do not have a strong domestic base."
Nonetheless, another official remarked, "It will be embarrassing to go back to Geneva after six months and tell the Soviets we 'reserve' our position on the most important items"--meaning the United States has nothing to say, at least for the time being. "We're going to look rather foolish."
Soviet chief negotiator Yuri K. Nazarkin, upon arriving in Geneva on Friday, said the long break in negotiations was "plausible" because of the change in U.S. presidents. "But the facts are here, much time has passed and the negotiations must be marked by intense and hard work."
Nazarkin said he did not come "empty handed," although the consensus is that the ball is in the U.S. court because Washington asked for the prolonged delay in the talks in order to conduct a reassessment of its global strategic posture, including its arms control positions.
He and the chief U.S. negotiator, Richard R. Burt, will meet briefly Monday to discuss negotiating procedures, according to U.S. officials, with the first formal session involving the entire teams scheduled for Wednesday.
Fitzwater said "a number of decisions" affecting instructions for U.S. negotiators had been made, but that Bush "will continue to make decisions . . . and provide them to our Geneva representatives on an ongoing basis."
"The changes that we'll begin with on Monday will be relatively minor," he added, "but we do reserve the right to review these matters and make changes on an ongoing basis. The question of mobile missiles is one that was not resolved before. Sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) is another very difficult (issue). . . . These could be changed later but it's unlikely that we will have changes in the first sessions."
An agreement on reducing strategic, long-range weapons was largely completed during the final Reagan years. About 400 pages of a joint draft text commit both sides to reduce their nuclear offensive arsenals by about 50% to equal ceilings of 6,000 warheads and cruise missiles. They may be carried on no more than 1,600 "delivery systems"--that is, missiles and bombers.
About five major issues remain and threaten to delay completion of an accord well into next year or even later.
Chief among them is the issue of mobile land-based missiles. The United States' current proposal is to ban such weapons, but it may be changed.