President's critics forced to regroup as arms talks approach
Now that the Reagan administration is about to resume arms control talks with the Soviet Union, it must also focus attention on closer-to-home adversaries regarding important weapons systems and negotiating strategy.
The adversaries are members of Congress as well as influential former officials and private experts opposed to the White House. The military systems being challenged are the MX intercontinental ballistic missile, antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, and space-based missile defenses.
Despite talk of new flexibility, administration officials are adamant in their refusal to give up anything in the key areas of strategic weaponry without gaining something from the Soviet side. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt said Monday that the United States is prepared to consider ''mutual restraint'' in some arms areas ''once negotiations are under way.''
But, he added, ''We won't agree to preconditions just to get to the negotiating table.''
In the wake of the Thanksgiving Day announcement that US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko will meet in Geneva Jan. 7 and 8 to look for new ways out of the arms control impasse, it is clear that the President's domestic critics are having to regroup. These include organizations and individuals in the nuclear-freeze camp, as well as conservatives concerned about Soviet cheating on prior agreements.
The White House this week must report to the Senate on Soviet compliance with past treaties. Under pressure from a small but influential group of Senate conservatives, the administration has had to walk a delicate path between publicizing alleged violations (some of them questionable) and exploring these more quietly through diplomatic channels. As with similar reports in the past, the administration is not expected fully to satisfy hard-liners on Capitol Hill or within the administration with this week's report.
On the other hand, more liberal critics may find it harder to make their case to the American public when much of that public perceives that Reagan's get-tough-with-the-Russians attitude, the military buildup during his first term , and his overwhelming reelection helped bring the Soviets back to Geneva.
For example, in an article in Foreign Affairs released Monday, four former senior US officials argue that the President's strategic defense initiative, or ''star wars'' program, ''has already had a heavily damaging impact on prospects for any early progress in strategic arms control.''
Politically at least, that assertion loses some steam in the announced return to Geneva. Yet the strategic defense initiative remains very controversial and faces a rough time in the Congress.
The four former officials - presidential national-security assistant McGeorge Bundy, Soviet Ambassador George Kennan, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and arms control negotiator Gerard Smith - describe the proposed space-based missile defense systems as ''a prescription not for ending or limiting the threat of nuclear weapons, but for a competition unlimited in ex-
pense, duration, and danger.''
The star-wars program will lead to greater superpower instability, the four contend, because it will be perceived as enhancing a first-strike capability and result in the proliferation of more offensive nuclear weapons.
In its budget deliberations for fiscal year 1985, lawmakers cut the administration's star-wars request from $1.8 billion to $1.4 billion. Given the widespread skepticism over weapons in space (even those that are defensive in intent), as well as the broader effort to hold down Pentagon spending, Congress is likely to look even harder at this program in coming years.
With the renewed prospects of arms control progress, Congress is also likely to continue its go-slow pressure on testing and deploying ASAT weapons. For the current fiscal year, lawmakers have barred further testing of the US Air Force's new ASAT rocket and limited the Defense Department to three such tests for the rest of the fiscal year.
The most controversial new US strategic weapon, the MX missile, has survived recent congressional votes by the thinnest of margins: seven votes in the 435 -member House and a vice-presidential tie-breaker in the Senate. The GOP picked up 14 seats in the House, but lost two in the Senate, among them several MX backers.
The administration will argue that continued MX funding is necessary to keep the pressure on the Soviet Union to reduce its large advantage in heavy, multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles. The MX faces four crucial votes on Capitol Hill next spring (two in each house), any one of which could block spending for more missiles.
For the past year, the administration has counted on a handful of key Democrats and moderate Republicans, led by Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, to keep the MX alive in return for arms-control positions that have been moderated several times.
As with the new US proposal for ''umbrella'' arms control talks, Representative Aspin says lawmakers will now have to focus on the questions of nuclear strategy and what might lead to greater stability.