THE Bush administration wants the US-German dispute over short-range nuclear forces (SNF) behind it by the time the leaders of the Atlantic Alliance gather in Brussels next week, senior US officials say. The potential ``understanding'' being worked out by US and West German officials will not resolve all underlying differences in perception between Washington and Bonn on East-West issues. Nor will it address more-basic military questions about the kind of nuclear weapons mix needed to face the ``new'' Soviet Union.
But it might bridge a political credibility gap in Europe that threatens the cohesion of NATO and leaves large opportunities for Soviet mischief-making.
The bald US and British opposition to SNF negotiations was politically untenable within NATO and with the German public, US officials say. ``This had become a virility test in which we were all just hurting ourselves,'' one top administration insider says.
US and West German negotiators hope to achieve alliance solidarity by spelling out when and why negotiations on SNF would be justified militarily. They would also defer decisions on deploying a new short-range nuclear missile while reiterating a commitment to the principle of modernization.
Late Sunday, the West German government expressed its dissatisfaction with Bush's latest proposal. A government spokesman said, however, that Bonn remains confident a solution can be found before the NATO summit, using the US plan as a basis for an agreement. President Bush noted during a Sunday press conference that ``great progress has been made'' toward solving the dispute. ``I think that we could well have this resolved before the summit.''
The pressing challenge is to ensure that the NATO summit and President Bush's first foray into Europe not look like a fractious squabble because of this dispute, US diplomats says. That would leave fertile ground for trouble when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visits Bonn next month.
The next objective is to turn the summit into a useful exchange about ``the real question: how to face up to a radically changing East,'' a senior Bush administration official says. Alliance leaders need an opportunity to sit down and begin to think through how to publicly justify collective defense until there is a change in the East bloc's military advantage, the US official says.
``The summit could be a kind of turning point for NATO,'' adds a ranking US diplomat. ``We need to get it to be forward-looking, not squabbling over SNF.''
More broadly, NATO needs to seriously think through its basic strategic principles, to reaffirm those still valid and adjust those that do not fit a changing Soviet Union, says Michael Mandelbaum, director of East-West Studies at New York's Council of Foreign Relations. The alliance has never had to think about what kind of an end state would be acceptable in Europe, adds Richard Betts, arms control specialist at Washington's Brookings Institution. But with Gorbachev, he says, NATO faces the potential challenge of being asked: ``What will it take for a final settlement?''
It will not be easy for NATO's 16 members to address such basic issues. ``There is a particular immobility to an alliance of democracies - it's hard to respond to initiatives, it takes time and it doesn't satisfy everybody,'' explains Gregory Treverton, European specialist at the Council of Foreign Relations. But that does not remove the pressing need to examine what defense and deterrence mean today, he adds.
In this sense, the SNF dispute is both a distraction from basic issues and a screen on which is played out the differing perceptions of the changing Soviet threat and how to deal with it. Behind the SNF clash is also a West Germany more willing to speak out for its perceived national interests and a European pillar of NATO in flux for many reasons.
The SNF dispute has been ``a tempest in a teapot,'' laments one senior US official. ``The real ball game in Europe,'' he says, is the conventional-arms negotiations in Vienna, not SNF talks. Those are the talks where Soviet intentions can really be measured and the basis set for easing military tensions in Europe. Indeed, he says Soviet negotiators apparently have been given an order to forge a deal in Vienna and the US is ready to ``negotiate vigorously'' to meet them part way.
The SNF controversy has also forestalled US efforts to get the alliance to consider coordinating political and economic strategy toward the Soviets and Eastern Europe, a high-ranking US European specialist says. ``It's time for NATO to play its full political role rather than just focusing on the military aspects,'' says former Secretary of State and Supreme Allied Commander Alexander Haig Jr.
The prospect of continued Western disarray was a central factor in pushing the US and West Germany to seek an understanding on SNF. Paul Nitze, the widely respected US arms-control negotiator, says he promptly broke ranks with the administration and advocated SNF negotiations with Moscow ``to heal a potentially poisonous rift'' between the US and Britain, on the one hand, and the alliance's continental powers on the other. Indeed, Mr. Nitze says he is not at all sure the Soviets will be willing to give up their 15-to-1 advantage in short-range missiles.
Mr. Mandelbaum adds that NATO has survived many crises that directly raised even more basic questions about the alliance. But the SNF dispute comes just ``as the glue of the Soviet threat is evaporating.'' Gorbachev is more able to take advantage of Western splits than previous Soviet leaders, and the allies are more willing to assert their perspectives.
Secretary of State James Baker III got a sharp dose of Gorbachev's skill in Moscow two weeks ago when the Soviets stole the headlines, shifting them back to SNF. ``Baker went to Moscow trying to shift the agenda to regional conflicts and away from arms control,'' a well-placed administration source says. But Mr. Baker ``neglected to calculate how vulnerable he was because of this West-West split.''
``With one sweep of the arm'' Gorbachev brushed aside Baker's plan and ``said, `Here's my agenda.' That was the one that stuck.''
That lesson reportedly has sunk in. The other lesson, says Mr. Haig, is that ``embracing West Germany'' is as important as countering the Soviet military threat.
US specialists agree that Bonn was wrong to break a pledge to handle SNF differences quietly. There is also a good deal of support for the administration's logic to draw the line somewhere to stop a political trend toward the ``denuclearization'' of Europe. Many agree that could leave the alliance without a credible defensive strategy in the face of still-superior Soviet conventional forces.
But there was also widespread agreement among specialists that a simple ``no'' to negotiations was politically unrealistic. The German public could not understand why the US would eliminate all intermediate-range missiles but still refuse even to talk about reducing weapons that could only rain down on their country.
Behind short-term political realities, there is the deeper question about what kind of a nuclear deterrent NATO really needs. A senior German social Democratic politician, Horst Emke, argued in Washington last week that NATO has nuclear ``overkill'' capability in Europe and could eliminate all of its ``war fighting'' shorter-range systems. This is especially true, he says, if the Warsaw Pact reduces its conventional force levels. That is the kind of logic US officials fear could lead to a denuclearization of Europe. But it also highlights the need for a clear NATO consensus on the mix of nuclear systems needed to maintain deterrence in Europe, US diplomats and specialists agree.