Muskie and the nukes

With a Titan II missile exploding in Arkansas, with the Russians engaged in increased military activity near Poland in East Germany, with tension escalating between Iran and Iraq, we are reminded again of the urgent need to bring the means of nuclear conflict under control. That effort, sadly, has been overtaken by American election politics and now rests almost forgotten on the back burner. But there will be an opportunity this week to resurrect interest in the subject when Secretary of State Muskie and Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko meet during the UN General Assembly session. Their aim will be to launch a round of talks on limiting medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

It would be naive not to recognize the political benefit to President Carter of agreeing to soundings at this time. He can show that he is pursuing his arms control objectives even while NATO continues its plans to deploy new Euromissiles. This is a handy posture as he confronts Republican contender Ronald Reagan. But this does not mean the Gromyko-Muskie get-together will or ought to be a political show. It should be a serious endeavor to get the United States and the Soviet Union talking once again about arms control and perhaps such political stumbling blocks to it as the continued Soviet occupation of Afghanistan -- which, together with other factors, has soured Congress on ratifying SALT II.

These talks do not directly concern SALT II, of course, but rather the nuclear weapons which are based in Europe with which the allies could hit the Soviet heartland and the Russians could hit West Germany and other members of NATO. There has long been agreement that, following ratification of SALT II, the next stage of negotiations would have to include these Euromissiles. But NATO has been reluctant to negotiate from a position of perceived inferiority. The Soviets have greatly upgraded their missiles targeted on Western Europe. The new SS-20 ballistic missiles now being produced and deployed, along with the scores of new high-speed Soviet Backfire bombers, are said to give the USSR the edge in medium-range nuclear forces.

To counter this buildup, NATO last December decided to add 572 Pershing-2 ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles to its European arsenal, beginning in 1983. It also offered to negotiate limits on the two sides' medium-range nuclear forces. Initially Mr. Brezhnev refused the offer unless NATO abandoned its "catch up" plans. But he has now dropped this precondition, although insisting the discussions should include the US fighter-bombers in Europe and on aircraft carriers -- something the US prefers to defer for the SALT III negotiations.

What in fact is now motivating Mr. Brezhnev is a matter of speculation. Some believe his turnabout has to do with improving Moscow's image as the Madrid conference on the Helsinki accords get underway later this fall. It could also be an effort to put East-West relations back on track following the damage done by the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan, and to show a reasonable posture after the events in Poland and allay Western fears of Soviet intervention in that country as well.

In any case, the US has an opportunity to see what the Russians have up their sleeve -- and to nudge arms control forward. It is worrisome that NATO and the Warsaw Pact are increasing their nuclear forces. West Europeans, some of whom already are resistant to deploying the new NATO weapons, would be much relieved if arsenals could be frozen or, better still, reduced. NATO's willingness to redress the Soviet nuclear advantage -- together with Moscow's troubles in its restless empire -- just may give the US the leverage it needs to bring about an agreement.

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