The neutron warhead appears to be on the verge of becoming the most politically bungled major weapons project in NATO history.
As seen from Bonn, it has sown more confusion and bewilderment among the members of the Western alliance than anyone in this capital can remember.
Yesterday, after West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher returned from a hasty trip to the White House, government spokesman Klaus Boelling said Bonn had been officially informed that the Carter administration "had not yet made a decision" whether to produce the controversial weapon.
Nevertheless, the widespread expectation among senior officials here was that President Carter would, at the least, decide upon an indefinite postponement of plans to produce the neutron warhead.
And like a soldier hearing the distant crump of artillery, the West German government is waiting for the neutron warhead decision to actually explode in Washington before assessing the political and military damage here on the frontline.
The neutron weapons - which kill by intense radiation rather than blast and thus can attack tank armies while causing less devastation to surrounding towns - were developed by the U.S. as a potential offset to the vast Soviet tank force based across the West German border.
The Carter administration, however, was pictured as having bungled the case for the weapon at the very outset of public awareness of these devices last summer. It allowed development of the neutron warhead to be disclosed to the public and NATO allies by the press rather than by the government, presented a weak defense of the weapon after that, and now apparently is changing its mind about the weapon at the last minute.
European governments - and especially the West Germans upon whose soil those weapons would eventually be based and used - are being pictured as failing to have given the American president the official and publicly stated support he asked for in making a decision to produce these controversial weapons.
Although the Germans are now privately urging Carter to reconsider, they may well be too late. They thus may ultimately have deprived themselves of a weapon that, privately, the two key NATO government crucial to European defense - German and Britain - [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
For the government of West Germany Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the current situation is fraught with both irony and political danger.
Nevertheless, there are also some potential positive points depending upon just what course the Carter administration takes over the next few months.
From the outset, the official and public position of the Bonn government has been that it has nuclear weapons, and that any decision to produce new ones is exclusively the responsibility of the U.S. president. Once that decision is made, Bonn says, a decision on deploying new weapons in Europe as part of the NATO arsenal should be a joint allied decision.
More recently, as Bonn has made increasingly positive public statements about the neutron warhead, it has agrued that every effort to negotiate the weapon out of existence in arms talks with the Soviets should also be made during the two years or so it would take before deployment could start.
The left wing of Schmidt's ruling Social Democratic Party strongly opposes the neutron weapon. The chancellor, whose center-left coalition government rules by only a wafer-thin majority in parliament, has refrained from making any clear cut, unambiguous public statement in support of the weapon's production, even though many of his top aides privately confirm that he wants the United States to go ahead.
Even now, despite Genscher's trip to the White House, which sources say was meant to make West German approval clear, the only open public statement in support was made by a defense spokesman for the junior party in the coalition, the Free Democrats. The spokesman said in a newspaper interview two days ago that "the leading politicians of all three parties have realized that we need the neutron weapon . . . to balance the superiority of the Warsaw Pact in conventional weapons."
The problem for Schmidt, however, is that if it comes to be perceived here that his political gamble caused the West Germans to lose out on a weapon on great potential defense importance - or that the warhead was sacrificed as a means of improving relations with the Soviets - then the chancellor could face a growing, conservative political challenge.
The conservatives parties here, which combines are larger that Schmidts Social Democrats, had clearly signaled their support for the weapons production. There have already been critical barrages fired at the chancellor in anticipation of the U.S. decision.
There is also support here in conservative newspapers for the U.S. argument that a decision to produce the neutron warhead should be accompanied by European assurances that, once produced, the weapon can be deployed.
Washingtons impatience was understandably," the newspaper Die Welt editorialized yesterday. "The European allies, who years ago were demanding just such a weapon for the battlefield, have been behaving like cats on hot bricks."
The independent Frankfurter Allgemeine's defense correspondent wortes. "Militarily, the West surrenders a weapon able to smash Soviet tanks. olitically, it abandons as attempt to restore the arms balance on the central front. Strategically, it surrenders a convincing element of deterrence. In the psychological barrage from the East and from some Western leftists, NATO is preparing for partial capitulation."
Schmidt, through Genscher, is understood to have warned Carter in recent days about the political danger he might face from Germany's rightwing as a result of a U.S. aboutface.
The irony for the chancellor is that at the very time when he is trying to signal his support most strongly in private, the White House seems to be pulling the rug out from under him, and that his political decision not to make himself a target for the leftwing may now make him a target for the right.
Even the major figure on the ruling party's left wing, Social Democrat Egon Bahr, whose famous description of the neutron weapon as a form of "perverted thinking" became the emotional rallying cry of the warhead's critics, has softened his opposition. He now says the weapon should be used as a bargaining chip.
Schmidt's warning, combined with the dismay of several top Carter advisers over the apparent decision, is also said here to be responsible for whatever hesitation there may now be on the president's part.
On the other hand, the possibility that the neutron weapon may in fact already be becoming part of an arms agreement with the Soviets which ultimately might improve West German security, ease East-West tension and help Schmidt in the long run, is thus far at least generally being overlooked here.