Down the garden path

BY his MX victories in the Senate and the House, Ronald Reagan has once more demonstrated that he is a brilliant politician. The odds against him on this issue were impressive.

Respected experts expressed serious doubt regarding the survivability of this weapon system. These same experts and others worried about creating new instability in the arms race.

Many with experience in relations with the Soviets and in negotiating arms control doubted that the loss of the MX would have a serious effect on the negotiations in Geneva. They pointed out that the Russians realize the system is flawed; it is the Strategic Defense Initiative, not the MX, that concerns the Soviets.

This vote came, further, at a time of growing concern in the country over the deficit and over the cost of defense. This was not the most propitious time to seek approval of a very expensive, questionable system.

The President prevailed over all of these hurdles.

His successful strategy began with the Scowcroft Commission. Whether by original design or by the good fortune of the President, the commission, in its report, linked the continued availability of the MX to the success of arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union. That linkage enabled the arguments to proceed in two basically contradictory directions.

To those concerned with successful negotiations with the Soviets, the administration argued that the MX was an indispensable ``bargaining chip,'' even though at times administration officials denied that it would be given away in negotiations.

To those who wanted a strong defense, the argument was made that the MX was needed to modernize our strategic force. Those who argued against the weapon were called ``soft on security'' or ``unilateral disarmers.'' These are powerful political themes.

In the latest votes, both approaches were used with telling effect. While less was said about the private pressures and favors for individual members, there is little doubt that these traditional tactics also were employed.

The strong lobbying of the administration was reinforced in the final hours by the presence of the chief negotiator, Max Kampelman.

The negotiating team in Geneva was constructed, basically, on political lines designed to gain support for the President's approach: a Democrat with a hard-line record on dealing with the Soviets to head the team and a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in charge of a significant section of the talks. It is highly unlikely that the head of such a team would take a position different from that of the President. Nevertheless, Kampelman's personal testimony on the importance of the MX to the negotiations helped to carry the day.

In such a campaign the point is reached when the issue is submerged in the tactics. A political victory becomes the objective. Whatever valid arguments or political signals opponents may send are lost in the rush for a success. The issue becomes not whether the system is workable or necessary, but whether the President will win or lose or whether the opposing party will be seen as ``weak'' and politically vulnerable.

The President wants the MX missile. Undoubtedly, he wants the full complement of 100 or more. His desire may be based on his genuine sense of the national defense need. It may, also, be based on his ideological bent for superior military power.

The President will probably get what he wants. When the MX comes up for consideration in the 1986 defense budget, regardless of what many in Congress may say today, the same arguments will be used. The arms talks will, undoubtedly, still be on; there is unlikely to be any clear progress. The Soviets will probably do little in the interim to enhance their image. Proponents will say then that the system cannot be abandoned now that 42 are being built, without a great loss of money and effort. The same strategic arguments will be employed. The individual arm twisting will continue.

The latest vote was, probably, the ``make or break'' vote. If the past is any guide, it is likely to be more -- not less -- difficult to defeat the MX in the future.

The President has demonstrated once more his brilliance as a political manipulator. Whether his victory is in the long-term national interest is still debatable.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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