As the summit approaches, some conservatives are in a tizzy of surprise and alarm about the conduct of the Bush administration, particularly concerning arms control. The alarm probably is disproportionate and the surprise certainly is surprising. What, by now, do they expect?
They are dismayed that we are having yet another ''arms control summit,'' one focused on strategic arms and, worst of all, one resulting in an agreement made possible by a pattern of unnecessary American concessions. But the concessions may not matter, and the fact that this summit is an extension of an old script is not startling.
Secretary of State James Baker rose to his present eminence because he is a gifted deal-maker in domestic politics. He is not steeped in any of the disciplines (history, for one; geopolitics for another) of diplomacy. His boss is the recycling president, re-using old ideas (as with Eisenhower's ''Open Skies,'' dusted off in 1989). Hence another summit at which success is measured in agreements signed. These will include an unverifiable agreement whereby the Soviet Union agrees to cut the size of, without revealing the size of, its poison-gas stocks.
There is an interesting contradiction at the heart of this preoccupation with arms control. The preoccupation intensifies this weary democracy's understandably intense desire to be done with armed vigilance. The codification of the preoccupation in agreements that become the sacraments of summits both ratifies and deepens the desire of this legalistic nation to believe that history is, if not over, certainly far away on a long holiday.
The arms control ''process,'' which has become an end in itself for the clerisy that finds job security in it, is lubricated by U.S. concessions of remarkable scale, made from a position of strength unprecedented in the arms-control era (since 1969). These concessions are justified by the idea (more recycling) that the Soviet leader is menaced by sinister figures who might reverse Soviet policies, and arms agreements can make the leader's position measurably less precarious.
However, if Soviet reforms are so significant and also so reversible (a contradiction within the contradiction), today's agreements are imprudent. And if Soviet changes are irreversible, the agreements do not deserve the significance invested in them by the Bush administration, which justifies its behavior (including the betrayal of Lithuania) by the supposed need to ''lock in'' the Soviet Union to a presumably irreversible path.
(Question: Suppose a dangerous Soviet leader arises, bent on reviving the Soviet Union's hegemonic ambitions. Will he read today's arms control agreements and exclaim, ''Drat! I'm locked in''? If so, why call him dangerous?)
The truth, which conservatives have tirelessly taught, is that no nation's security has ever been measurably, let alone lastingly, enhanced, let alone guaranteed, by arms control. The permanent paradox of arms control is that it is either impossible or unimportant.
If the Soviet Union has abandoned imperialism, arms control does not matter. If the Soviet Union has not, or becomes a recidivist, arms control will be what it has been since 1969. It will be an arena of deadly competition, in which the Soviet side (by patience made possible by the irrelevance of public opinion) achieves agreements that bend weapons competition in ways advantageous to it.
Perhaps the administration really subscribes to the theory of arms-control irrelevance. That would explain the cavalier concessions and frivolity regarding facts. In a testy reply to a senator's question about U.S. abandonment of Lithuania, Baker said Lithuania is less important than ''locking in'' agreements that will result in destruction of 40,000 Soviet tanks and ''50 percent of their heavy strategic missiles which are targeted on United States cities.''
Now, never mind that the supposedly strapped Gorbachev continues to spend 25 percent of Soviet GNP on the military, buying, among much else, more tanks and artillery since 1985 than are possessed by the British, West German and French armies -- combined. But Richard Perle notes that fewer than 20,000 tanks are slated for destruction under the agreements and that the heavy missiles matter, not because they are targeted at cities (they are not) but because they are first-strike weapons targeted against U.S. retaliatory forces.
Perle, writing in U.S. News & World Report, tartly says that our chief negotiator ''is off by a hundred percent on the number of tanks to be destroyed, and has failed to comprehend the most basic facts about the nature and significance of Soviet strategic missiles. A channel-hopping couch potato who stopped on C-SPAN once in a while would surely know better.''
The last thin threads connecting arms control, that hot-air balloon, to reality have been cut, and the whole business floats away, up, up toward the summit.