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Why the rush to accept the Reagan-Gorbachev arms plan?

IF Jimmy Carter had signed the Euromissile agreement that the White House is rushing to conclude with Moscow, Ronald Reagan would have been the first - and most vociferous - to denounce him for being naive if not worse. And with good reason. For the agreement that the President is so anxious to sign with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev is a classic example of flawed arms control - certainly more so than Carter's SALT 2 Treaty that Reagan condemned as ``fatally flawed'' and eventually repudiated.

The proposed Reagan-Gorbachev accord, which would eliminate from Europe all intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF) and possibly all shorter-range missiles as well, fails the three most critical tests of sound arms control from an American viewpoint:

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It would not enhance the security of the United States and its allies. On the contrary, it would weaken deterrence marginally by removing from European soil the only NATO missiles capable of striking Soviet territory. And this in turn would enhance the advantage that the Soviet Union derives from the superiority of its conventional military forces in Europe.

The projected INF agreement would complicate the transAtlantic relationship by reviving the very problems that the deployment of the Pershing 2 and cruise missiles were designed to solve - the problems stemming from allied concerns in the late 1970s that the defense of Western Europe was being decoupled from America's strategic nuclear deterrent force. Those concerns already have been revived in an acute form by President Reagan's freewheeling proposals to Mikhail Gorbachev last November at their Reykjavik summit.

The accord would not reduce defense spending in the West. Indeed, the result might well be a requirement for increased military outlays to augment NATO's conventional strength.

From the Soviet standpoint, by contrast, the projected Euromissile agreement looks like a good deal - certainly a better deal than for the West. It would eliminate fast-flying and accurate Pershing 2 missiles that Russian military planners worry could knock out their command centers in a US first strike aimed at crippling the Soviet nuclear retaliatory forces. These military planners also doubtless realize that, with all US missiles gone, the US could not hope again to deploy nuclear missiles on the European continent in face of the powerful antinuclear sentiment that has proliferated in most allied countries. Little wonder that Gorbachev is going to such extreme lengths to prevent the Reagan administration from wriggling off the hook of an INF agreement.

Now, it is true, as administration spokesmen argue, that the INF agreement would require the Soviets to dismantle missile silos in Europe with roughly 1,000 warheads with a range of 600 to 1,000 miles while the US would be obliged to get rid of comparable weapons with only about 300 warheads - an apparent numerical advantage of better than 3 to 1 for the US. But numbers are not the key to judging the merits of this particular agreement.

It is important to recall why the decision was taken in the first place in 1979 to deploy US Pershing and cruise missiles in Western Europe. The primary reason for this move was less to counterbalance the buildup of Soviet SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe than to reinforce the linkage between the US strategic nuclear forces and NATO at a time when allied leaders were fearful that the link might be weakening.

The importance of the deployment was as much, if not more, psychological and political as military. Therefore, an agreement removing all of these weapons would cancel out the vital psychological and political benefits achieved through the exceedingly painful process of installing the US missiles in Europe in the face of massive antinuclear protests.

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Why are President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz so anxious to rush into this highly controversial agreement with Gorbachev? To ensure Mr. Reagan's place in history?

There is another explanation and it is that Mikhail Gorbachev has outmaneuvered the US. How? Simply by accepting in 1987 a US proposal that was launched in 1981 as a propaganda move on the assumption that the Soviets could not conceivably buy it. This so-called ``zero-option'' plan was dreamed up as a ploy to seize the propaganda initiative at a time when European governments were in a desperate political battle to implement the deployment of the Pershing 2 and cruise missiles. It worked - for a while. But Gorbachev did what he was not supposed to do. He shrewdly saw the hidden advantages in the zero-option plan and embraced it.

President Reagan, at this stage of the game, can hardly turn down his own proposal. And allied governments in Europe, unhappy as they may be with the projected agreement, could block it only at the risk of provoking a political backlash in their own countries. So the US appears ``doomed'' to success in negotiations for an agreement that is regarded as flawed by experts across the political spectrum.

If consummation of the zero-option INF accord is unavoidable, the Reagan administration needs a coherent strategy for implementing the projected agreement without damaging Western security or alliance cohesion. The overriding aim of the strategy should be to convince Congress, the allies, and above all the Soviets that the INF agreement is not the first step toward the progressive denuclearization of NATO defense.

That will require a categorical US guarantee barring any further negotiations with the USSR over nuclear weapons in Europe, except in the context of talks to achieve parity in the conventional forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It also will require a new compact between the US and the European allies - an assurance by Washington against unilateral withdrawal of US troops plus a European commitment to join in an intensified effort to augment NATO's conventional capabilities.

Joseph Fromm, a veteran foreign correspondent and editor at US News & World Report, is currently a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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