Washington, getting tough on SALT II, hands propaganda points to Soviets

East-West relations were marked this week by a soft move in Moscow and a hard move in Washington. The net effect was to improve Moscow's posture in the eyes of the Europeans and other spectators. It made the Soviets look more reasonable and interested in accommodation. Moscow's soft move was in the form of an announcement Tuesday that exit visas will be granted to 117 Soviets who wish to join relatives living in the United States. Washington's hard move was a presidential announcement that the US will proceed with deployment of air-launched cruise missles ``without dismantling additional systems as compensation under the terms of the SALT II treaty.'' At the same time, Reagan announced that two Poseidon submarines would be dismantled -- not to comply with the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) limits, but for budgetary reasons.

The essence of Washington's hard move lies in the official acceptance by President Reagan of the contention that the Soviets are in substantial violation of the terms of the treaty and that in consequence the US will no longer be bound by those terms, unless there is a ``radical'' change in the Soviet attitude.

This reverses the US emphasis on compliance with SALT II. Until this week Reagan's position was that the US would continue to comply with those terms. Now his position is that the US will no longer be bound unless the Soviets revise their performance.

The change in position does not mean that the US will build beyond SALT II limits at once. The present timetable for deployment of B-52 bombers reconditioned to carry air-launched cruise missiles calls for the 131st of the bombers to go on line in late November or December. At that time, the US will for the first time be over the limit of 1,320 launchers of multiple-warhead strategic weapons, unless something happens to change the decision in the meantime.

Until now the contention that the Soviets are in substantial violation was being advanced by the civilian leadership at the Pentagon but not officially accepted by the President as a basis for policy change. Now it is so accepted, and it is now presidentially approved policy to ignore the old limits of the unratified SALT II.

The change represents a major win at the White House for Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and his principal advisers in such matters -- Fred Ikle, undersecretary of defense for international policy, and Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense in the same area. It is a defeat for Secretary of State George Shultz and, according to unofficial reports, for the professional military leadership at the Pentagon.

It is understood that the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have favored continued observance of the SALT II limits on the grounds that the Soviets could move ahead faster with new weapons production. They have assembly lines in operation for their latest weapons. The US does not. Also, the Soviets have no political opposition in a congress to slow or block any new weapons program. In the US there is no certainty that the government could get the funds for a sudden increase in weapons procurement.

The weapon of main concern to the Pentagon is the Soviet SS-25, a single-warhead, mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. The US is still in the research and experiment phase of building a mobile missile with a single warhead. The Soviets are in production now. The US has still to decide what type of weapon to build.

The Soviets contend that the SS-25 is permissible under the treaty. The Pentagon civilians contend that it represents a second new weapon. Only one new weapon is permitted.

The President's statement on the SALT II decision noted that the US will be in technical compliance with the treaty until deployment of the 131st bomber late in the year. He invited the Soviets ``to use this time to take the steps necessary to alter the current situation.''

Perhaps the Soviets will do something to alter the situation before the US breaches the old treaty limits. President Reagan and Soviet Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev are still expected to meet before the end of the year, presumably in Washington. At such a meeting, the issue of compliance could be resolved and a new agreement reached on limits on strategic weapons. The current Washington decision in favor of the hard line on SALT II limits does not mean that bargaining over future limits is at an end. It is, rather, a move in the process of groping toward a possible future set of limits.

But in the meantime, the accident of the two annoucements on the same day in the same week gives Moscow a plus score in the propaganda battle between the two superpowers. Mr. Gorbachev is doing much to make his posture appear to be more peaceful and reasonable than the US posture. The Washington move was, of course, a propaganda assist to Mr. Gorbachev.

President Reagan's move was aimed primarily at pacifying his right-wing ``new conservatives'' who were also unhappy this past week over what they suspected would be a planned sellout of the ``contra'' rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government.

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