Ronald Reagan is constantly being condescended to by people who are so busy condescending they do not notice that he has tied their shoelaces together. And now there they go again, underestimating his craftiness.
People who usually are critics of his arms control policies are cavorting like spring lambs, convinced that he has converted to Carterism and pledged eternal compliance with SALT II. The gullibility of American arms control enthusiasts has its uses.
His decision to continue, for the moment, complying with the unratified SALT II treaty did not finish the argument; it framed the argument in a way that should alarm the lambs. He did not stop the argument between the State and Defense departments; he started a clock on a new game and handed the ball to defense.
If the treaty had been ratified, it would expire this December. The most significant thing Reagan did this week was ask defense for a report in November.
Before Reagan acted, the Senate demanded, as children do, two incompatible things. It said to the president: Please comply with SALT II -- but please take actions proportionate to Soviet violations of SALT II.
The president has now replied: You asked for it. Our respect for SALT II will be proportionate to Soviet respect. We will violate it only as much as they do. Now, go read the report you required me to submit -- the one where I document their comprehensive violations.
Before Reagan's decision, and shaping it, there was the familiar burlesque of Secretary of State George Shultz "consulting" America's European allies. They can always be counted on to say what Shultz's State Department says whenever a hammer hits its knee: "Do not do anything that might jeopardize the arms-control process." (During which process the Soviets have deployed 75 percent of their warheads.) The result, as predictable as sunrise, was a panicky cable from Shultz's entourage, saying the allies would suffer nervous breakdowns if the United States abandoned the SALT II limits.
So the president, being elaborately patient, says he is going an "extra mile." But a mile has a 5,280th foot, which will be reached when he receives the November report recommending appropriate and proportionate responses to Soviet behavior -- proportionate, remember, to comprehensive violation of SALT II. And he has directed the Defense Department to write that report.
By the time Reagan has gone that "extra mile," and sacrificed one submarine on the altar of allied and Senate sensibilities, it will be harder for the allies and senators to go berserk when he takes his next step against SALT II. A logical next step -- a step flowing from the logic of the president's language -- is to abandon the limit on MIRVed missiles. It might have come by now but for the timidity of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In 1979 the chiefs were directed to project what Soviet deployments would be if there were no SALT II. They listed numbers. The Soviets have exceeded those numbers even while complying with SALT II's so-called "restraints." Yet in 1985, the chiefs are divided about compliance, partly because of a fear that their budgets might suffer liberal reprisals in Congress, and partly because they think America will not compete if the Soviets are released from SALT II restraints. (Under those restraints, the Soviets have added 4,000 warheads and can add 3,000 more.)
But the president's idea of America "back and standing tall" is incompatible with America clinging to SALT II as to a life raft. By the end of the year Shultz's legion of psychotherapists will have worn out the argument that SALT II compliance is indispensable to the emotional balance of America's allies. And the president, having sacrificed one submarine to maintain the limit in MIRVed missiles, will be looking down the road and be weighing the fate of 18 more.
In his statement starting the clock, the president said the United States cannot continue adhering to a double standard that constitutes unilateral compliance with SALT II. Those are the very words Richard Perle, as assistant secretary of defense, was roundly abused for using in congressional testimony a few months ago. The abusers were the arms control fetishists who say any arms agreement is important and no Soviet violation is. Perle was speaking like Reagan and now Reagan is speaking like Perle. If this continues, the State Department is going to come down with a bad case of the vapors and the allies will have to put cool compresses on the State Department's forehead.
It will continue, because of the way the president has described and prescribed. He has described the current condition as untenable ("unilateral compliance") and has prescribed proportionality (actions proportionate to the Soviet Union's promiscuous non-compliance). Reagan has used language to paint himself into the corner he wants to be in. He is conducting a revolution against SALT II, but he understands Robert Frost's point: "Revolutions are wonderful salves, but they are something that ought to be done by halves."
Yet SALT II's supporters, including most of the media, seem convinced that Reagan has joined their ranks and guaranteed SALT II's longevity. He has disarmed them and they have not noticed. This illustrates why Soviet negotiators are able to sell things such as SALT II to the sort of people who will still think SALT II is alive and well and lovely.