Arms control in historical perspective

SOVIET officials involved in planning for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit and beyond have let it be known that they prefer to deal with a conservative American administration, because they think this will make for easier ratification of arms agreements. Perhaps. It was probably easier for Richard Nixon to start the opening to China and the process of d'etente with the Soviet Union than it would have been for a president with less impressive anticommunist credentials. Pursuant to this logic, the Soviets want to go to work next year on a strategic arms agreement to follow the agreement expected to be signed next week on intermediate-range missiles. Given the history of such negotiations, it would be extraordinary if this process could be completed in 1988 and even more extraordinary if it could be completed in time for Senate action. Attempting to bring off both of these agreements in that time period might hurt the prospects of both of them.

It may well be that the Reagan administration will have more credibility in proposing arms control treaties than another administration without the same history of bashing that ``evil empire.'' But achieving a two-thirds vote in the Senate will still require the investment of a good deal of political capital. And the Reagan White House does not have much political capital. With the Iran-contra affair, two failed Supreme Court nominations, and haggling over the budget, President Reagan's stock has fallen like the Dow Jones industrials.

Mr. Reagan's standing may be revived somewhat by a successful summit. This, plus the sensible appeal of the intermediate-range missile treaty, will probably be enough to get that treaty through the Senate. But will there be enough political capital left over to get a more far-reaching strategic arms limitation treaty through the Senate?

In 1977 and '78, President Jimmy Carter had a major struggle to get a two-thirds vote in favor of the treaties on the Panama Canal. He invested so much political energy and capital in these treaties that nothing was left for other issues. The SALT II Treaty still continues to languish on the calendar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

After the delays and frustrations of 40 years, one hesitates to counsel a slowdown in arms control negotiations, especially when the Soviets are eager to proceed. But it may be unrealistic to expect the Senate to deal with any arms control agreement next year beyond the treaty on intermediate nuclear forces. Asking the Senate to take on a strategic arms limitation agreement as well might overload the system. Let the negotiations proceed, but quietly and out of the political limelight.

There is a further consideration. Arms control agreements might require greater respectability when endorsed by the well-known anticommunist Ronald Reagan, but his endorsement does not necessarily carry a great deal of weight with some Republicans who are still true believers. At least through the Super Tuesday primary next March, there is a crowded field of presidential candidates, each trying to distinguish himself from the others. Arms control needs to be the subject of a serious public debate, but it does not need to become a political football kicked from one candidate to another in two-minute statements.

The President has so little influence with his own party and Congress that the White House quickly backed away from the idea that Mikhail Gorbachev should address a joint session of Congress. There was fear that members would not accord him the common courtesy of sitting and listening to what he had to say, that they would walk out or engage in other calculated rudeness.

This is too bad, but it's nothing new. One of Mr. Gorbachev's predecessors, Nikita Khrushchev, also came to Washington. His visit, in September 1959, drew Congress into an absolute frenzy to adjourn before he got there, thereby rendering moot the question of a joint session.

Instead, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee invited Khrushchev to late-afternoon coffee. The committee took care to have vodka available, but Khrushchev stayed with coffee. Drinking vodka, he said, interfered with space exploration. Khrushchev also joked with Sen. Carl Hayden (D) of Arizona, then chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, about how much money both countries could save if they stopped spying on each other.

Alas, the next spring Soviet troops shot down the American U-2 spy plane, and a second Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit crashed with it. While Khrushchev was in Washington, however, Dwight Eisenhower took him to Camp David, where things went so well that ``the spirit of Camp David'' became an early synonym for d'etente.

Reagan likes Camp David. The weather won't be as good in December as in September, but maybe the spirit can be revived anyway.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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