Kenneth Adelman: the fifth man out

''It is an unhappy coincidence that at such a moment we should have a President, a secretary of state, a secretary of defense, and a national security adviser who are all innocent of experience in the complex and bewildering world of arms control. . . . It would be neither coincidence nor chance if a fifth man , the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, should also be without experience, knowledge, or competence in the field of arms control.''m

This indictment by Sen. Charles Mathias of the Reagan administration's lack of top-level involvement in arms control may have sealed the fate of Kenneth Adelman's nomination to be the head of the central government agency charged with primary responsibility for policy on the reduction and control of arms. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee formally postponed a vote on Adelman, rather than send his name to the Senate floor with a negative recommendation on confirmation.

There are a number of compelling reasons why the White House should reconsider and submit a more credible nominee to the Senate.

Consider the attitude and perspective of the nominee toward negotiations on controlling nuclear weapons. There is plenty of evidence that he is neither convinced nor convincing. When the spokesman for the Arms and Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) cited evidence of Adelman's belief in the beneficial effects of arms control agreements, he pointedly left out any mention of the SALT accords negotiated under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter - while citing the Geneva Convention of 1925 and the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

Earlier, Adelman was quoted in a press interview as saying that he could not think of ''any negotiations on security or weaponry that have done any good,'' but that his policy would be to engage in arms negotiations ''for political reasons'' even though he regarded them as ''a sham.''

Consider Adelman's performance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in recent weeks. The hearing transcript of Jan. 27 reveals that, on several key topics, he professed either to have no thoughts, to have no strong opinions, or to need to look into them before responding. Examples:

1. When Sen. Claiborne Pell asked whether nuclear war could be limited, and whether society could survive such a war, Adelman said respectively: ''I just have no thoughts in that area'' and ''I am sorry to tell you I just have no strong opinion.''

2. When Sen. Alan Cranston asked whether the Soviets are violating the terms of SALT II, the nominee responded ''that is not an area I have looked into; it is not an area I am knowledgeable about at all.'' He then went on to admit that he did not know what the treaty requires in terms of compliance. He said he did not know whether the administration's MX in ''dense pack'' plan would violate SALT II; however, after some lunch-break advice, he claimed it was fully consistent with the treaty.

At a second hearing on Feb. 3, after being subjected to two grillings by the White House, Adelman discussed at length some matters he had shied away from earlier while continuing to evade others. A disturbing example: When asked by Sen. Paul Sarbanes why the US should not undercut SALT II, Adelman responded that it sets a climate for real reductions in START. But he was opposed to ratification of the SALT treaty because it would become ''the supreme law of the land'' and would ''set precedents for future treaties.''

Now consider the statutory mandate of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency:

''The agency shall be headed by a director who shall serve as the principal adviser to the secretary of state, the National Security Council, and the President on arms control and disarmament matters. . . . the director is authorized and directed to prepare for the President . . . recommendations concerning United States arms control and disarmament policy.''

No crash course can prepare Kenneth Adelman for these responsibilities. To make the case for Adelman as director of ACDA is to mock the law and to establish a case for abolishing the agency.

Why not place Paul Nitze in overall charge of arms control policy? Then the secretary of state would have a national security expert and a strong colleague within the government. If Secretary Shultz is stuck with Adelman, he will find that his ''right man for the job'' will be on his right - as one more vote siding with the Weinberger Pentagon at the interagency table where policy is hammered out.

Finally, if the President persists in pushing this nomination to the Senate floor, he will provoke a sustained Senate debate on the arms control policies of his administration. The posturing, the lack of urgency, the disarray which characterize these policies will be revealed for all the world to see - including the American and West European publics. Then the vote on Adelman's nomination will become a referendum on President Reagan's policy on nuclear arms.

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