There is no denying that much of the European agitation over President Reagan's decision to build the neutron bomb springs from emotional insecurity rather than from cool analysis. For, of course, the new neutron weapons are more "humane" than the 6,000 nuclear warheads that have been deployed in Europe for the past two decades. They would kill fewer people, if used. They are no more monstrous than the Soviet chemical weapons that also have the property of annihilating humans but sparing structures. They will not lower the nuclear threshold, will not break down the categorical distinction between conventional and nuclear arms, will not-- given the ever-present risk of escalation to the strategic level--make nuclear war "fightable," let alone "winnable."
They may strengthen deterrence simply because no one could possibly know for sure that they would not be used. The Soviets would have to take into account that weapons that primarily eliminate Russian tanks might be more readily employed than weapons that mainly devastate the country meant to be defended.
The neo-pacifist arguments aren't very convincing, then. But neither are the timing, the style and the motives of the Reagan administration. Its decision, too, betrays more emotional insecurity than clear-headed thinking. It ignores fundamental issues of NATO's strategic doctrine, and it reveals a lack of diplomatic, political and psychological finesse reminiscent of the worst moments of the Carter years.
On the strategic plane, there are two troublesome problems. Are neutron weapons really "classical weapons for defense"? Wouldn't they lend deadly punch to an aggressor using them against the defender's strong points? The Russians are known to be working on neutron weapons. The West's temporary advantage could turn into a drawback.
Then, do nuclear battlefield weapons still make any military or political sense? Is a U.S. president ever going to command their use to stop Soviet armored columns tearing into West Germany if that carries the risk of destruction for large parts of the American homeland?
German generals shudder at the thought that neutron weapons might be used indiscriminately "like DDT against flies." This would make nonsense of both the strategy of "flexible response" and the principle of selective, sparing, first use of nuclear weapons in the event of war. Many European experts feel that anti-tank weapons, which NATO members are procuring by the hundreds of thousands, can do the job equally well--without risking the escalation of any border skirmish to an atomic Armageddon.
But Europe's deepest grievances are political. Since the days of hapless Jimmy Carter, the "neutron bomb" has symbolized U.S. mismanagement of alliance affairs. While it is technically true that Reagan has only decided to produce and stockpile the new weapons on American territory, it is obvious that about the only place they could be used is Europe. So the decision is bound to result in pressure on the allies to deploy them in Western Europe, especially in Germany.
Formally, the allies cannot claim a veto right over Reagan's decision, yet they feel entitled to the kind of consultation that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger promised when he first raised the neutron bomb issue last February. At that time, Secretary of State Alexander Haig advised America's NATO partners to discount Weinberger's comment. When West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt visited Washington in May, he was clearly told that the issue was not topical.
The whole affair raises dismaying questions about the way the Reagan administration intends to lead the Western alliance. Does it want to lead by diktat, imposing a defense strategy, downgrading consultation to ex post facto announcement? Will it take European nuclear doubts into consideration, as it does the opposition in Utah and Nevada to the grandiose MX, or will it try to lay down the line by public strictures, with the secretary of defense saying in so many words that the neutron decision was meant to punish the Germans--an ally that faithfully met its defense obligations through the 1970s when America dragged its feet, and which even now, when it must limit the growth of security outlays, takes care not to impair the fighting capabilities of the Bundeswehr?
The allies have watched with fascination the seven- month tug-of-war between Reagan's conservative ideologues ("the Weinbergers") and the conservative pragmatists ("the Haigs"). They now fear the Weinbergers have won the day. They note that all the administration has come up with so far is the simplistic notion to arm, arm, arm. An elusive superiority seems to be the goal. There is no concept for arms control or arms limitation.
Nor do "the Weinbergers" have any sense of priorities. The European anti-nuclear lobby is already campaigning against NATO's decision to modernize theater nuclear forces. The revival of the neutron debate can only make life more difficult for the five embattled governments that are prepared to station 572 Pershings II and cruise missiles in their countries. It overloads the alliance system. It creates unnecessary strains in the precarious relationship between East and West.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Atlantic allies are about to enter a zone of turbulence. The danger is that Reagan's insensitive policies may cause exactly the kind of disenchantment with the United States that a more subtle approach could easily avoid, and that this may provide the Soviets with the only comfort they could possibly hope for.