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The INF pact: get it right

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THE crossed signals over the United States-Soviet treaty banning medium-range missiles shouldn't be difficult to unscramble. But the Senate leadership was wise to keep the treaty off the Senate floor until the misunderstandings are cleared up.

The INF pact sets precedents vital to negotiating cuts in strategic nuclear weapons. It's the first such treaty to reduce - to the point of elimination - an entire class of nuclear weapons. And it's the first to allow people to lift lids and check under tarps to ensure that the other side is adhering to the treaty. The buzz phrase is ``on-site inspection,'' contrasted with relying only on spy satellites and other ``national technical means'' to monitor compliance.

Breaking fresh ground like this makes it all the more important to get it right the first time.

It should come as little surprise, given the Soviets' long tradition of secrecy, that disagreements they raised center on the provisions for on-site inspection. It would also be easy to gin up all sorts of sinister reasons for Soviet objections.

But it is more likely that the disagreements are honest ones. The treaty is complex, the text in two languages. Some provisions were written on a plane flight to Washington just before the signing at last December's summit. Negotiators worked under pressure of the summit deadline. In anticipation of ratification, teams from each side are now faced with putting together from the treaty blueprint the nuts-and-bolts structure to carry it out. Some provisions take effect within 30 days of ratification.

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