It is perfectly reasonable for the Reagan administration to insist on a thorough review of SALT treaties before sitting down to new negotiations with the Russians. It is another thing, however, to send out a negative signal to the Soviet Union on the whole issue of arms control. The administration might do precisely that if it decides to postpone attending a routine meeting this month of the joint Standing Consultative Commission. Whether US interests would be best served by such a postponements seems very doubtful.
Let's back up. The Commission was set up in 1972 to enable the United States an the Soviet Union to review compliance with the SALT pacts (negotiated by President Nixon) and to report on each other's strategic forces in the context of treaty provisions. It is the first such permanent body of its kind. It meets normally twice a year and at such times that either side has something special to take up. Through the years these meetings of the two sides' experts have been businesslike and civil. Above all, they have been effective, providing perhaps the most important bilateral forum for genuine dialogue and for dispelling mutual suspicious. Questions raised have often led to corrective action. The US has benefited, perhaps more than the Soviet Union.
Broadly speaking, this quiet-functioning commission has demonstrated that it is possible for the two nuclear adversaries to reach agreements and to maintain them.
The issue now is whether the US should delay this valuable restraint on treaty breaches. There is no question the Defense Department loses by such a postponement. Yet reports emanating from Washington indicate a lively, even fierce, battle within the administration over the matter. Some, for instance, want the meeting to go ahead but apparently for their own political reasons. Thus, new anti-SALT voices within the State Department have been compiling lists of so-called Soviet violations of SALT and would like to confront the Russians with these in Geneva, reportedly in hopes of stirring confrontation and perhaps frustrating the SALT process.
Many will be disappointed that Secretary of State Alexander Haig did not early on weigh in on the side of a decision to go ahead with the meeting. He has firmly stated his commitment to arms control, and he certainly knows the value of the Standing Consultative Commission in making sure past agreements are being implemented. If there are adversary views within his own shop, he will have to deal with these sooner or later. Indeed it would be better not to take up the matter of Soviet violations in an early meeting with the Russians, for the US must be sure it is on solid ground before it raises charges against Moscow, and this requires a full study and an iron- clad case. Nor does the US have to know its future SALT position before talking about compliance with existing agreements.
The difficulty now probably lies in wanting to avoid press publicity of the meeting.President Reagan has bery pointedly adopted a tough anti-Soviet posture since coming into office and he and his aides may think it politically unwise or inconsistent for the US to be seen meeting with the Russians on SALT matters -- even in so routine and low-key a forum.
We hope this is not the case. For the sake of his own global aims, Mr. Reagan ought to consider carefully the consequence of delaying what has proved to be such a useful vehicle. If the US stops the review process now, what is to prevent the Soviet Union in future from doing the same thing, and at a time when the US is eager to meet? Two, after all, can play the waiting game.
The fact is, the Standing Consultative Commission is one of the most positive things to come out of the SALT process from the US point of view -- a mechanism for determining just how seriously the Russians take agreements made with the US.In the many years since the commission's establishment there has been only one postponement of a session, and that only for a short time because of travel problems. Another postponement should be undertaken only under compelling circumstances, and it is hard to see how such circumstances can be jus tified now.