Why the US needs a vigorous arms control agency

By , Duncan L. Clarke, professor in the School of International Service, The American University, is author of ''Politics of Arms Control: The Role and Effectiveness of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.''

For the Reagan administration, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) is the Environmental Protection Agency of the national security bureaucracy - it is reluctantly retained but deprived of its effectiveness.

An effective ACDA requires several things:

1. The agency's director must have the President's confidence. Former ACDA head Eugene Rostow did not. Rostow's proposed successor, Kenneth Adelman, is unlikely to have it. He is young, lacks extensive arms control experience, and appears to have no personal relationship with the President.

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2. The President must be interested in arms control. But Reagan, whose transition team for ACDA considered abolishing the agency, has been known to doodle when arms control issues are discussed in policy councils.

3. ACDA requires competent leaders who are able and willing to make the case for an arms control approach to national security. But several senior ACDA officials were never confirmed by the Senate and they were abandoned by the administration. Rostow was often absent from the agency and irritated government officials by his seeming preoccupation with pro-Israel measures unrelated to arms control. And it is doubtful if ideological anticommunists like Rostow and, apparently, Adelman are normatively inclined to argue for arms control.

4. ACDA must have the requisite budget and personnel to perform its mission; but the agency has been strapped on both counts. ACDA's budget is less than the cost of one F-16 aircraft and there is no more hazardous form of government employment.

5. The agency needs an adequate hearing on policy issues. However, ACDA is often excluded from decisions with important arms control consequences.

6. Given these factors, a supportive Congress is essential. Fortunately, Rep. Clement Zablocki and Sen. Charles Percy understand ACDA's importance, but some right-wing senators erroneously equate arms control and ACDA with weakness and naivete.

It seems unlikely that either ACDA or genuine arms control will be prominent in this administration. Over the long run, though, assuming one wishes to enhance arms control perspective in government, ACDA should not only be maintained, but sharply upgraded for the following reasons:

* Neither by mission nor disposition is the Pentagon generally disposed to push arms control initiatives. A frequent proposal is to abolish ACDA and assign its functions to the State Department. This would be unwise. Even if the secretary of state is receptive to arms control, he is too busy with other matters to spend much time on the subject.

* ACDA is a catalyst. It keeps good ideas alive. The museum-like ambiance of Foggy Bottom is not conducive to new ideas. Without ACDA, the Non-Proliferation Treaty probably would never have materialized.

* Former ACDA director and current Pentagon official Fred Ikle calls the agency a ''bureaucratically independent conscience.'' It brings matters to light that others would prefer to ignore or suppress.

* Elimination or downgrading of ACDA means one less voice for arms control on interagency committees and in informal decisionmaking processes.

* ACDA brings continuity to US arms control efforts and its excellent independent analytical capability permits it to raise issues that otherwise could be ignored.

* Enfeebling ACDA would rightly be interpreted at home and abroad as a retreat from America's commitment to mitigating the danger of nuclear war.

* Legislators, whether Democrats or Republicans, should be leery of efforts to weaken ACDA. Without it, Congress would surely receive far less information about arms control-related matters.

In a budgetary sense, ACDA is one of the best bargains in town. Just as America's need for a strong military does not cease in peacetime, its need for a vigorous ACDA does not end when international conflicts abound.

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