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Behind Reagan's arms control rhetoric

In his speech to the United Nations, President Reagan said that the United States is ''ready for constructive negotiations with the Soviet Union.'' His initiative was rebuffed by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who said that deeds not words were required. The Soviet position has not changed, despite a meeting between the two men. Soviet doubts about the sincerity of Reagan's intention may have been reinforced in the one East-West negotiation taking place , where the administration has blocked progress while making it appear the USSR is at fault.

The negotiations known as Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) have been taking place in Vienna for almost 11 years. NATO and the Warsaw Pact are negotiating to reduce conventional forces at the most dangerous point of military confrontation between East and West. The two sides have agreed in principle on an equal ceiling of 900,000 ground and air personnel on each side, with a subceiling of 700,000 ground troops.

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Two main sticking points have persisted. The Soviets have resisted Western insistence on prior agreement on the number of troops now in the zone (the ''data base'') and on extensive on-site verification procedures. Recently a tradeoff between these two issues has been proposed: agreement on data would not be necessary if the final outcome of a 900,000 man ceiling could be verified adequately. The data dispute would be set aside, in return for satisfactory verification procedures.

The USSR showed interest privately in this method of circumventing the data problem. In 1983 the Warsaw Pact offered proposals in Vienna embodying these principles and indicated its willingness to accept, for the first time, permanent posts for counting troops as they exit and enter the reduction zone and for on-site inspection of forces remaining in each zone. While not fully meeting the NATO position, the proposals signaled movement and were greeted with enthusiasm by Western delegates.

In December 1983 the negotiations were broken off when the Soviets walked out of the START and Euromissile negotiations to protest deployment of new US missiles in Europe. But the USSR, under pressure from its East European allies, agreed to return to Vienna in March 1984. During this break Western delegations debated their response to this Warsaw Pact initiative.

Within NATO there was considerable support for a cautious but positive response. However, a task force in the Defense Department under Richard Perle, assistant secretary for international security affairs, concluded that an MBFR agreement was not in the US interest, even though it would eliminate Warsaw Pact manpower superiority in this region. Although this conclusion was not widely supported by US or other NATO negotiators, it carried the day within the administration.

The resulting NATO response in April 1984 was generally described by the American press as a concession. But in fact it represented a toughening of the Western position as advocated by Perle. For every step forward, there were several steps backward. There was a shuffling of the categories of forces for which prior data agreement would be required, ostensibly softening this prerequisite. But data would be broken down into finer categories so that the net effect would be to compromise information that the East regards as sensitive.

Moreover, verification requirements were substantially increased over previous Western proposals. Annual quotas for on-site inspections were approximately doubled, as was the size of inspection teams. Furthermore, the linkage was broken between initial Soviet and US withdrawals and subsequent (especially West German) reductions; this linkage is important to the East.

The Western position seemed designed to serve only one goal: stalemate in the negotiations. Acting against the judgment of most other members of the NATO alliance and many civilian and military officials within the US government, a small group of arms control opponents in the Reagan administration created a proposal designed to be unacceptable to the USSR. This reinforced Soviet disillusionment with the Reagan administration's entire approach to arms control negotiations.

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The US cannot be held entirely responsible for the failure of MBFR; the Soviet Union, among others, has contributed to the 11-year stalemate. But the recent record on MBFR calls into question the administration's rhetoric supporting arms control and suggests that arms control has become a public relations game rather than serious pursuit of fair and reasonable agreements.

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