It is becoming possible and necessary to ask whether President Reagan, so long regarded as the scourge of arms control, may not get an agreement with the Soviet Union next year.
For awhile this prospect represented not much more than a White House hope to exploit some perceived international and political gains. But now wisps of movement are reported on secondary negotiating fronts, and on the central front --the START talks on reducing strategic arms--both sides have made some intriguing moves.
The president, moreover, has accepted a requirement to improve the machinery to follow and anticipate developments at Geneva. This week he created a senior task force chaired in the White House, inserted above the old Pentagon-led interagency groups.
The INF talks on missiles in Europe look stuck. Moscow refuses to ease off on reasonable terms its ill-considered decision to deploy SS20s. The response which alliance integrity requires in the absence of a successful negotiation, a new American deployment, inflicts a cost on us and the allies as well as the Soviets, but not so great a cost as a non-response would inflict.
Here it takes a certain nerve to ask Ronald Reagan to demonstrate statesmanship, since Moscow provoked the European crisis and since it would benefit if statesmanship were applied. But the West would benefit too, so statesmanship is in order.
It comes down to whether Reagan will warm up to some mutually acceptable version of the "walk in the woods" formula, the negotiators' aborted effort of last year to give the United States equality in Euromissiles while sparing the Soviet Union the particular threat of the Pershing II missiles.
The Russians scream that the Pershings give the United States a threat measured only in minutes against Moscow targets. Sometimes their propaganda is convincing. Other times I note: our Pershings are no faster than their "Pershings," the SS20s; ours can reach Moscow in the same time that some of their sub-based missiles can reach Washington. Still, prudence dictates giving them the benefit of this doubt. The principal reason is to sweeten the chances of the START negotiation, next to which INF is peanuts.
On START, the administration has not sorted itself out. Some officials believe Moscow may choose to cut its European losses once Pershing and cruise missile deployment starts at the end of the year, if there is a chance for a deal in START; so take a pragmatic approach and make the deal. Others believe in hanging tougher, some because this is their idea of how to bargain with the Russians and others because they distrust arms control viscerally, almost on principle.
The whole matter of how to negotiate is one on which there is a scarcely concealed fault line inside the administration. Disturbingly, recent Soviet signs of incipient reasonableness are taken in some quarters as proof that the traffic will bear a harder squeeze.
That the START numbers Moscow now offers are below those it offered in SALT II is cited as evidence that tough Reagan-style negotiation works. That the president's various arms-building programs have shot the political rapids is similarly emboldening.
With a bit more assertiveness than I find comfortable, Reaganites are inviting the Soviets to calculate whether they will not do better to deal with Reagan now rather than with either a reelected and therefore presumably more demanding Reagan or a Democrat vulnerable on his right.
The issue on which this gathering tension may yet cut most deeply is the Kremlin's heavy missiles, the first-strike silo- busters they prize most and we fear most. How far and fast should the United States go in demanding that Moscow "restructure" its forces--cut its 630-odd SS18s and SS19s, their deployed counterparts of our prospective MXs? In Geneva the talks are not far enough along to force the issue, but in Washington the lines have formed.
The two negotiations--with the Soviets and within the administration-- are getting serious. There are many questions about Moscow. About Washington my main question is whether the administration will overplay its hand.