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Delaying SALT

President Carter clearly would have taken political chances to continue pressing for the SALT II treaty in the face of the Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. The public mood toward the Russians has soured. Signals from the Senate, for its part, where the treaty already was in deep trouble, indicate the lawmakers would be reluctant to approve the pact with Soviet troops marching in Kabul. The Soviet action indeed calls for strong reaction by the US and the world community. Countermeasures are needed to bring home to Moscow the unacceptability of such a flagrant breach of international law -- behavior that seems to hark back to Stalinist times.

The decision to hold up Senate debate of the pact is thus part of a host of moves Mr. Carter was preparing at this writing in response to the Afghan intervention, including plans to take the issue to the United Nations. But the President made clear that the delay was dictated by the political climate and tactical necessity and did not mean the administration was withdrawing the treaty. It continues to support its passage at a more propitious time. The delay is thus an effort to save the agreement in the long run.

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Whether or not it can or will be saved is a matter of grave national concern. While we appreciate the misgivings many Americans will have about the treaty as a result of the turmoil in the Middle East, the public might consider whether reacting on this issue in the heat and emotion of the moment without thinking through all the consequences would not prove self-defeating in the long run. The question remains: Would failure to adopt the SALT treaty punish the Soviet Union? Or would it impair the US national interst as well and the broader global interest of nuclear disarmament?

We believe the latter. It is not a matter of trusting or not trusting the Russians but of mutualm interest in reducing the dangers of an uncontrolled nuclear arms race. Precisely because the US-Soviet relationship is largely an adversary one -- and successive presidents have stressed that SALT does not eliminate political and military competition -- it becomes crucial to try to limit the most dangerous competition of all, that in weapons of mass destruction which, if brought into play over a political crisis, could annihilate much of mankind. The SALT treaty, as White House officials repeatedly point out, is not something which benefits only one side or does the Soviet Union a "favor."

As for the issue of "trust," it ought to be more widely recognized that the agreement is not based on trust but on the ability of each side to verify compliance by national technical means. Without SALT, Americans should realize, the Russians would be under no obligation not to conceal their nuclear systems and it would be more difficult for the US to monitor these. Without SALT, there would be other undesirable consequences as well. The Soviets would most likely build up their total strategic systems beyond the limit allowed under the pact. They would place more nuclear warheads on them. To meet this challenge the US, too, would be operating at higher and higher levels of arms development and spending.

The price of an indefinite delay in SALT could thus be very high. It is saddening that an effort of six years, pursued by three administrations, Republican and Democratic, has become hostage to Soviet interventionism and to election-year politics. Mr. Carter no doubt will have the public's support for his decision to postpone SALT. But it can only be hoped that the diplomatic and other measures taken by the President will compel the Soviets to reassess their Afghan exploit, withdraw their forces -- and make it possible, among other things, to keep the SALT process alive.


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