Reagan arms team. Does President have people who can deal with Moscow?
Washington — President Reagan is trying to twist Mikhail Gorbachev's arm. But who is twisting Ronald Reagan's arm? The summit in Reykjavik appears to have given renewed momentum to the arms control process. But some arms control experts express concern that the circle of advisers around President Reagan may not be able to persuade him that compromises could be required to strike a deal with the Soviet leader.
Throughout the Reagan presidency, bureaucratic conflicts have beset arms control policy. Many observers believe a politically stronger voice is needed at the White House.
``All the arms control channels have consisted of people fundamentally against arms control,'' says John Steinbruner, director of foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution. ``Everyone proclaims devotion to arms control, but the question is whether they are capable of working out practical compromises.''
Key players in the arms control process are Secretary of State George Shultz, presidential arms control adviser Paul Nitze, White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, national-security adviser John Poindexter, and Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle. But each of them is viewed by some advocates of arms control as having certain deficiencies -- or as lukewarm to arms control.
Secretary Shultz has emerged as the leading articulator and formulator of foreign policy. He is finally engaged in the arms control process and has the President's confidence.
But Shultz is not versed in the nuts and bolts of nuclear strategy, and while he has won internal battles with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, the degree of his influence is uncertain. Hard-line advisers in the administration continue to have the President's ear, and Shultz must be careful not to appear to be accommodating toward the Soviets.
Mr. Nitze is universally respected as knowledgeable about arms control and sophisticated about bureaucratic politics. But, like Shultz, Nitze must proceed cautiously and also lacks political authority. He was the author of the famed ``walk in the woods'' agreement with the Soviets in Geneva in 1982, a package of proposals hailed by some Western arms experts, but he was unable to sell the agreement in Washington.
Admiral Poindexter is a competent National Security Council manager. But he does not have a personal relationship with Reagan. He is also less forceful than his predecessor, Robert C. McFarlane, and other high-powered advisers of past administrations.
Richard Perle, a strong critic of Moscow, is a formidable opponent of current arms control pacts and is skeptical of future accords.
Unlike his boss, Defense Secretary Weinberger, however, Mr. Perle is not enthusiastic about President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative -- the visionary plan for a space-based antimissile defense -- and in fact tried to remove mention of SDI from Reagan's March 1983 speech.
Donald Regan runs the White House with a strong hand and has rapport and influence with the President. Some believe Admiral Poindexter was picked to succeed Mr. McFarlane precisely because he would subordinate himself to Mr. Regan. But Mr. Regan has little foreign-policy experience and even less experience in arms control.
Some diplomatic observers point to Regan's comments right after the Reykjavik meeting, when he hastened to put the blame for collapse of the summit on the Soviets -- and his subsequent turnaround to convey that the summit was a success.
The circle of presidential insiders on this issue also includes Attorney General Edwin Meese III. Mr. Meese is not involved in arms control policymaking, but he has the closest personal relationship with the President, and his voice carries weight in White House deliberations.
When the issue of Soviet espionage was debated recently, Mr. Meese and other hard-liners carried the day for the massive US expulsions of Soviet diplomats. Shultz opposed the move but did not prevail.
In the wake of Reykjavik, arms control advocates suggest that the Joint Chiefs of Staff will have to weigh in more heavily in the decisionmaking process.
But so far it is not clear where Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, stands on SDI or whether he thinks arms control is essential to maintaining security. In the latest debate over the unratified SALT II Treaty, the Joint Chiefs climbed down from their previous position of opposing abrogation of the pact.
Still another potential player is Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, who heads the SDI planning team. He is viewed as an effective technical manager and somebody who accepts that some limits on SDI will be needed to get an agreement with Moscow.
``He knows that SDI is linked to constraints on offensive weapons, and we're at the stage where it has to be explained to Reagan that SDI diminishes if the Soviets run up their offensive weapons,'' says Alton Frye, an arms expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The question is whether General Abrahamson is prepared to make such a case to the President.
Some experts suggest that in the end the most influential voice with the President will be Nancy Reagan.