Arms control: arguments in Washington

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WE are three weeks away from President Reagan's first meeting ever with a head of the Soviet government, and also the first for the new Soviet leader with a president of the United States. A battle royal is being waged in the back rooms at the White House between those who want something to come of the meeting and those who do not.

What is this all about? Why does anyone hope that nothing substantive will emerge, and argue against President Reagan going to Geneva with serious negotiating positions?

The answer is that there are groups and causes that benefit from strained relations between the two superpowers, just as there are groups and causes that would benefit from easier relations.

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The prime beneficiary of strained relations is the arms industry. Contractors eager to build the sophisticated materials for the Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'') are lined up hundreds deep at the doors of the Pentagon.

A new arms control agreement could, and still might, emerge ultimately from positions to be taken up and preliminary agreements to be signed during the two days at Geneva. It could happen and it would, if it does happen, cut back on many a weapons program.

President Reagan's rearmament program is a product of the second cold war, which dates from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. (Actually, it should be called the Carter-Reagan rearmament program, because it was launched by President Carter during the last year of his administration.)

This rearmament program has generated many thousands of new jobs in every state in the union. Hence, it is regarded favorably by trade unions and members of Congress who have benefited from the work. The rationale for it is ``the Soviet threat.'' Without a ``Soviet threat,'' there would certainly be a substantial cut in the arms program.

The reverse side of that coin is the use that could be made of the funds being spent on arms if the rationale for the arms program were to be reduced by new agreements between Washington and Moscow. The savings could go into either reducing the deficit or for social-service programs. Mayors of large cities with heavy welfare burdens would favor arms control that could bring a reduced arms budget and release federal funds for the cities.

Without any agreements at Geneva, President Reagan is sure to insist on keeping his arms program going at maximum pace. With a new agreement that appeared to herald a new era of d'etente in East-West relations, pressure for arms reductions could be irresistible.

Thus, Americans have conflicting interests in whether the President goes to Geneva genuinely seeking an arms control agreement and an easier context for East-West relations.

There are overseas interests as well. Poland is a case in point. Soviet treatment of Poland was relaxed during d'etente, hardened when d'etente collapsed. The more East-West tension, the tighter the rein Moscow keeps on its unreliable satellites.

Many a client of Washington has a reverse stake in East-West tension. Generous United States aid to El Salvador and to the ``contras'' in Honduras is based on ``the Soviet threat.'' Reduce the appearance of that ``threat'' and the US Congress will be less willing to put up those funds.

Israeli hardliners prefer strained East-West relations. A prime argument used with Congress to obtain funds for Israel is the view that Israel is the main bulwark against ``communism'' in the Middle East.

Also, collaboration between Washington and Moscow could involve a joint effort to bring peace to the Middle East on the basis of United Nations Resolution 242, which would require Israel to give up much of the occupied Arab territories. Israel's chance to keep all or most of those Arab territories would be better in a condition of strained East-West relations than under d'etente.

Much is at stake in preparations for Mr. Reagan's appearance at Geneva. It is not surprising that the agenda is being hotly contested, and that agreed positions have not yet been reached.

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