WASHINGTON — In the twilight of their terms in office, most presidents look forward to that last bigpower summit and the chance for a grand bargain on arms control. But President Clinton may well consider canceling his trip to meet President Vladimir Putin in Moscow early next month if he is not to risk humiliating defeat.
In the United Nations five nuclear powers, including the United States, have committed themselves, without a timetable, to the "ultimate goal" of eliminating nuclear weapons. But, as things stack up, that is an exercise in futility.
Conceivably, Mr. Clinton could overcome Mr. Putin's adamant opposition to amending the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Putin has warned that if the US doesn't comply with the ABM Treaty, all bets are off and the nuclear arms race is on again.
But Clinton is also on notice from Sen. Jesse Helms and 24 other senators that any arms-control treaty negotiated by this administration will be "dead on arrival" at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That being so, Putin has little incentive to compromise. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met last week with Gov. George Bush, who opposes any Russian deal with the incumbent. That suggests that the Kremlin has started looking past Clinton.
Without Russian agreement to amending the ABM treaty, the president would have to abrogate the treaty if he decided to go ahead with the development of a limited missile defense against rogue states. That decision is supposed to come this summer after one more test of the antimissile missile, scheduled for late June. With his hands tied by Mr. Helms and company, the president may well decide to leave the missile defense decision to the next president.
But he would then lose the opportunity to offer Putin a START III treaty, scaling down from START II limits on strategic weapons, in return for acquiescence in an American limited missile defense system.
Furthermore, the Duma made ratification of START II contingent on keeping the ABM Treaty intact. Thus, arms control may not only be stopped in its tracks, but could move backward.
Helms and Bush may derive satisfaction from having made Clinton truly a lame duck in negotiating on nuclear weapons offense and defense. But an old clich will have to be amended: Politics starts at the water's edge.
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