Election '86: the choice is ours

IT is time for American voters to take charge of arms control. Faced with a failed summit in Reykjavik and an election coming up, US citizens must now assert their power to determine the direction of this nation's national-security policy.

While the nuclear threat is a deeply held fear among Americans, most of us feel helpless in making our voices heard on the subject.

For too long we have believed that only the ``experts'' who count warheads and speak in military jargon can fashion our security policy. Yet it is now clear that even the ``experts'' cannot agree about how the United States should move toward arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.

Congress flexed its muscles all summer by challenging administration policy on defense spending priorities but then relinquished those challenges in the name of national unity before the Reykjavik summit. Going into the Iceland meeting, the administration was optimistic that at the very least a date for a future summit could be set and that there was a possibility for nuclear force reductions.

The meeting in Reykjavik was a failure on both counts.

But summitry is only one process among many with the potential for resolving national-security issues.

For each summit, there are hundreds of votes in Congress that set security policy for the US. Among current candidates for Congress are future decisionmakers who will allocate defense dollars and determine the goals of our military policy.

A healthy public dialogue on security issues will help voters evaluate the candidates.

Now is the time for us to pose questions and to demand answers from candidates for Congress on critical security issues. Questions such as these: Should we proceed with the testing and deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative, given that it has proved to be the major stumbling block to arms control? What effect will SDI have on arms control negotiations and on the existing Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? How can we regain the momentum to reduce strategic forces and nuclear weapons in Europe?

One of the most optimistic developments in this year's election is the record number of candidates who have agreed to discuss security issues in televised debates sponsored by Leagues of Women Voters. These ``Agenda for Security'' debates cover 18 Senate and 50 House races. The candidates appearing in these debates should be commended for agreeing to devote half of each discussion to critical foreign-policy and national-security topics.

The terror we feel living in a nuclear world cannot be eased by limited discussion in the name of national security or summitry. Restricting free and open debate only increases our sense of impotence and hopelessness. Right now we have a ready-made opportunity to lower the anxiety level by seeking reasonable solutions to the nuclear threat.

As citizens, we have a role in promoting a safer world. Empowering ourselves -- by challenging candidates to state their positions on the issues, by informing ourselves about the policy options faced by our elected representatives, and by casting a vote for the candidates who most closely match our personal point of view -- takes effort.

Yet that effort can move the nation toward concrete measures to reduce the risk of nuclear war. If we abdicate our responsibility, we abdicate our power to set this country on a course we have chosen.

The choice should be ours to make on Nov. 4.

Nancy M. Neuman is president of the League of Women Voters of the United States.

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