What was to have been the centerpiece of next week's summit meeting here in Washington - an agreement to ban certain kinds of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) - has now become something of a side attraction. The measure of the summit is now shaping up to be progress toward long-range strategic arms reductions (START).
Both US and Soviet officials are stressing the importance of START. The administration is trying to play down expectations of a major breakthrough on the issue. And some former administration officials are warning about undue haste in pursuing a strategic arms accord.
Nevertheless, it now seems likely that the Washington summit will focus largely on reducing long-range nuclear weapons.
In a speech to high school seniors in Jacksonville, Fla., Tuesday, President Reagan pledged to ``keep right on marching'' toward further arms agreements after next week's expected signing of an INF agreement.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in an interview with NBC television, termed the issue ``the very core of Soviet-American relations,'' and said that ``there are real prospects ahead of us'' for a 50 percent cut in the superpowers' strategic arsenals.
Mr. Gorbachev said the reductions should be coupled with ``strict observance'' of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The summit may well focus on determining just what ``strict observance'' really means - and on what specific kinds of reductions the Soviets have in mind, according to US officials.
Ambassador Max Kampelman, who heads the US arms control negotiating team in Geneva, says it's unclear just what Gorbachev means when he calls for strict observance, because Soviet interpretations have varied over the years.
But Mr. Kampelman says the United States will ``seriously examine and consider ... any proposal they [the Soviets] come in with'' regarding strategic arms reductions.
Kampelman, in a State Department briefing, said both the US and the Soviet Union have declared themselves in favor of completing a START treaty ``sometime during the first half of next year,'' presumably at a summit meeting in Moscow.
Kampelman indicated that the US would be willing to give assurances that it would not withdraw from the ABM Treaty for a fixed period of time. (Currently, either side has the right to withdraw on six months' notice.) But he said the US would also be pushing the idea of ``sublimits'' - caps on the specific kinds of missiles that make up the US and Soviet nuclear arsenals. The US wants the deepest cuts in the heavy, land-launched missiles that it sees as most destabilizing, while at the same time preserving its own advantage in hard-to-detect, submarine- launched missiles. The Soviets, predictably, have exactly the opposite goal.
US officials suggest that the two leaders may concentrate on clearing these stumbling blocks. They indicate that the President and the general secretary will likely issue some kind of assessment of the progress they made at the end of the summit, on Dec. 10. The assessment could range from a joint statement or communiqu'e to a specific set of instructions for US and Soviet negotiators on how to proceed to reach a treaty.
Kampelman says, ``What is difficult is the decisionmaking, not the drafting.''
But a number of critics, some former administration officials among them, are urging caution on Mr. Reagan.
They are criticizing not only the pace of negotiations toward a START treaty but the INF treaty as well.
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle warns that the US needs to be ``very careful about broad agreements, agreements in principle, framework agreements, instructions to negotiators, statements of intention that have a lasting effect on American negotiators, but little effect on Soviet negotiators.''
Another former administration official, in a pointed and highly public way, warned the President. In an article printed in the Washington Post, he raised questions as to whether the INF treaty could be adequately verified.
The former Pentagon official, Frank Gaffney Jr., ousted from his job by incoming Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci III, advised in a ``Dear Mr. President'' article that hard questions need to be raised about verification measures before the treaty is signed. ``If it comes to that, `Just say no,''' Mr. Gaffney wrote. There is some evidence that the criticism is having an effect on the White House.
Reagan defended the INF treaty, saying Monday it fostered ``the most stringent verification regime in the history of arms control negotiations.'' He said the US is ``pressing ahead'' for an agreement to cut strategic nuclear arsenals by half, but he added that ``we must never be afraid to walk away from a bad deal.''