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START Momentum

STRATEGIC arms control is about equal parts formal negotiations and the more public pronouncements that are a kind of barometer for the trust (or distrust) between nuclear superpowers. There are good signs on the latter front - from both the US and the Soviet Union - and these should be encouraged. During its first eight months, the Bush administration was in a go-slow mood on START (the strategic arms reduction talks covering long-range missiles and bombers). It preferred to concentrate on conventional forces in Europe. And it wanted to make sure the Reagan legacy - proposed cuts on both sides to roughly 50 percent of current Soviet warhead levels, plus lots of devilish details - was the best way to go. That is where things stand in Geneva.

But there has been significant movement on both sides to indicate that an agreement drastically reducing nuclear weapons is within grasp. That's why President Bush - a generally cautious man wary of setting himself up for failure - now says there's a ``good likelihood'' an agreement can be signed before next summer.

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Among the obstacles that have been removed are US objection to mobile missiles and Soviet insistence that missile defenses like ``star wars'' be limited before START is signed. The Soviets also say they will dismantle their mammoth missile-defense radar in Siberia (a clear violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) and have adjusted their position on sea-launched cruise missiles.

If this sounds like Moscow is giving up more for now and also like some important issues are being ``kicked down the road'' (as one US official put it), it's true. But it's also of minor importance. Pruning some issues (i.e., procrastinating) allows both sides to focus on the major goal: reducing the huge nuclear arsenals and slowing down the modernization that has continued.

The Bush administration's willingness to actually cut ``star wars'' spending for the first time sends another clear signal to Congress (the Senate will have to ratify any treaty) and to Moscow that it's ready to deal on START.

Perhaps more important is the changing attitude toward Soviet military capabilities and intent - that is, the Bush view of such things now coming into focus.

The Pentagon last week issued its annual ``Soviet Military Power'' document. For the first time in eight years, the Soviets are no longer viewed as a ``threat,'' but as a ``challenge.'' Looking at the intelligence data, generals and admirals now conclude the likelihood of US-Soviet conflict ``is perhaps as low as it has been at any time in the postwar era.''

Although it generated less publicity, the Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier this year reported that ``the avoidance of war has now been codified as a primary objective'' of Soviet doctrine, that ``the Soviets' primary peacetime security objective is to deter war (particularly nuclear war) with the West.''

These are the kind of welcome signs that - with strong Bush-Gorbachev leadership - should result in progress at Geneva.

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