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Rethinking the agenda: arms

PRESIDENT Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev must be reappraising their arms control positions after the US elections. Both should conclude it is best to move ahead toward agreement. Arguing against this is evidence that the dispute over base positions in Reykjavik drags on. The foreign ministers' meeting last week between George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze re-invoked the downcast conclusion of the Iceland summit. The Soviets are eager to press the administration hard on the more radical dimensions of the bargaining - no nuclear deterrence after 10 years, and no strategic defense initiative, either.

Mr. Reagan likes the former condition but not the latter. His view is that the nuclear deterrent, held like a sword of Damocles over the world, is immoral. Others had come to construe the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers as discouraging aggression and as ensuring America's defense of its West European allies. Reagan, as part of his legacy, wants to have altered strategic planning by leaving nuclear arsenals behind. His choice is whether to insist on his basic vision, keeping his ``defensive'' SDI program intact, or to agree to a more modest package: fewer midrange missiles in Europe, sharp reductions in long-range missiles, and an agreement on which defensive systems to proceed upon, and under what conditions.

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Even the more modest package would be a major achievement.

The Kremlin must decide how much serious business it still wants to do with Mr. Reagan. It should note that the President likely has a better Senate for backing an agreement after last week's election. Americans are ambivalent about arms: Apprehensive of war, they don't want to trail the Soviets strategically. For the Soviets to prevaricate with Reagan would make dealing with a future administration more difficult, not less.

Reagan retains freedom to move ahead on arms control. He should so move.

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