The arms control lag

It may not be news to arms control cognoscenti. But it will be news to the general public that the Russians have made a proposal at the Geneva talks on limiting intermediate-range missiles in Europe. They have also made a counterproposal in the strategic arms talks also going on in Geneva. Are the proposals worthwhile? Or are they designed largely as a public relations exercise to woo West European and American opinion in the absence of serious arms control negotiations?

Few details are known. But in the case of the strategic arms talks, some American officials describe the Soviet offer (calling for drastic cuts of missiles and bombers on each side) as a surprisingly forthcoming one. The sides remain far apart but at least there appears to be a little movement.

The question is whether the Reagan administration wants and expects to make progress at this time in this crucial area of East-West relations. Many arms control advocates are dismayed by the record so far. Indeed the public in general has reason to be concerned that after 20 months there has been virtually no substantive progress (despite Mr. Reagan's dramatic ''zero option'' and START proposals and his public assurances following his European trip). In fact there is evidence that the US is actually retreating from the arms control posture of previous Republican and Democratic administrations.

To begin with, the US proposals submitted in Geneva are totally unacceptable to the Soviet Union and not thought realistic (the US does not, for instance, include its bomber force or cruise missiles in the proposed cuts). Then there is the fact that the US decided to drop negotiations for a comprehensive test-ban treaty when the negotiations were almost completed. Bilateral talks on controlling chemical weapons also have been terminated. And, to the dismay of many, the administration has not resumed arms control talks on antisatellite (ASAT) weapons - which means that the US and the USSR are fast headed for a military race in space.

Further skepticism is fueled by the fact that the administration's arms control bureaucracy is in utter disarray. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency has a director, Eugene Rostow, but after so many months still no deputy director or assistant director. With Senator Jesse Helms leading a right-wing charge against Mr. Rostow's choices, Congress has yet to approve the nominations. Meanwhile ACDA's budget appropriations and research program have been cut. When a conservative arms controller like Eugene Rostow finds himself embattled, doubts arise as to the administration's real intentions.

President Reagan, however preoccupied he is with other problems, can dispel the growing impression of administration inertia if he wishes to. Certainly the American people want progress on arms control and are speaking out on the issue. Last month the House of Representatives rejected by only two votes a resolution calling for an immediate Soviet and American nuclear freeze, adopting instead an administration-backed measure. Even the recent override of the presidential veto of a spending bill can be linked to voter opposition to stepped up defense spending at the expense of social programs. Republican moderates heard from their constituents.

Is the President also listening? Past experience shows that the US has made progress on arms control when the public has finally become involved and pressed for action. Such momentum is building once again, and should make it possible for the President to move forward despite attacks from the right. Contrary to the latter, compromise agreements with the Soviet Union are not a sellout of Western security but a strengthening of it.

Mr. Brezhnev's proposals may or may not be bona fide offerings. But the President may begin to lose political capital at home - and credibility abroad - if he does not show that he is in earnest about curbing the nuclear arms competition.

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