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Prodding Arms Control

AN odd alliance has coalesced in the US Senate around the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. This treaty would reduce NATO and Soviets forces on opposite sides of what used to be called the ``Iron Curtain'' to equal sizes. The pact was signed by George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, and 20 other heads of state last November, but ratification is stalled by a dispute over how to define ground forces. That's where Sens. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island, Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, and Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina come in. The first two are liberal Democrats who've never had a bad word to say about arms control. Senator Helms has rarely said a good word about it. But they all find worthy points in the CFE, which sharply cuts forces in Europe and cuts Soviet troops and weaponry, which far outnumber NATO's, most deeply of all. Moscow, for example, will have to get rid of 19,955 tanks; NATO only 2,684.

The three lawmakers wrote President Bush, asking him to immediately send the treaty to the Senate. The implication is rapid ratification. But there's a catch. Pell, Biden, and Helms want the treaty to carry a contingency demanding strict Soviet compliance with the disputed article regarding ground forces. In effect, a treaty approved in that form would confirm that the Soviets cheat.

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That may please Mr. Helms, but it seems a strange way to do international business. Moscow might balk.

The better approach is to let the administration work out its compromise with the Soviets over the issue of whether a portion of their troops, newly redefined as ``naval infantry,'' should be included in the CFE count. Logic is on the side of NATO and the US, but compromise may go a little way in the Soviets' direction in order to salvage what is an overwhelmingly favorable agreement to the West. Then a treaty minus snags can be submitted for Senate ratification.

Perhaps the senators' maneuver will goad some quicker action, both in Washington and in Moscow, where Mr. Gorbachev has a dicey relationship with his top brass, many of whom aren't fans of the CFE. If so, fine. Ultimately, the Soviet Union's need to honor its international commitments should overrule military qualms.

Action on the CFE will lead to action on the START treaty on strategic nuclear arms, which will in turn pave the way to another US-Soviet summit. That train of events needs to get moving, in a way that will see it through to completion.

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