PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH has seized the initiative in East-West arms control. At a NATO summit which opened here yesterday, the President mapped out a four-point plan for cutting conventional forces in Europe, including a call for a 20 percent reduction in United States troops stationed on the continent.
The move is aimed at boosting East-West conventional-arms talks which opened in March in Vienna. The initiative is also designed to blunt criticism that the West is not doing enough to respond to the overtures from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Speaking to reporters after NATO's morning session, President Bush said, ``Here we go now - we're on the offensive.'' (See story, Page 7.)
Under the plan, the US would pull out some 60,000 troops - but only if the Soviets made much deeper cuts in their own forces stationed in Eastern Europe. The objective is for the US and the Soviet Union to both have no more than 275,000 troops stationed outside their own territory in Europe. For the Soviets, however, that would mean cutting their troop strength in Eastern Europe by over 300,000.
Bush also suggested opening up the Vienna negotiations to include transport helicopters and land-based combat aircraft.
Both proposals constitute key concessions. The Soviets had sought from the start to include both troops and aircraft in the conventional-arms talks, but until now, the US has insisted that the first phase of negotiations should focus on heavy equipment - tanks, artillery, and armored troop carriers.
By shifting the US position, the US has opened up the way for rapid progress in the Vienna talks. Indeed, the two other points in Bush's plan include locking in existing Soviet positions in the Vienna talks and setting up a timetable for the agreement.
``I believe it will be possible to reach agreement in six months or even a year,'' said Bush, who speculated that the cuts could be implemented as early as 1992. He also specified that all the troops removed would have to be demobilized, and any equipment removed under an agreement must be destroyed.
These are strict demands - but not as far-fetched as they might have seemed a few years ago. The Vienna negotiations are off to a strong start, and US officials say the Bush administration is merely seeking to make the most of this ``historic opportunity'' to reduce the level of military tension in Europe.
The moves also come after the Soviets have expressed willingness to make concessions in Vienna. Recently, for instance, Moscow presented a proposal for reduction in tanks and armored troop carriers that comes close to matching the Western position.
White House officials had hinted for days that the President was planning to lay out ``new ideas'' in Brussels. This is Bush's first trip to Europe as President, and many have looked to it as a decisive turning point. In recent months, NATO has been battered by a steady stream of arms proposals from the East, but has been unable to respond decisively.
The proposals, which must now shift to the negotiating table in Vienna, were widely praised by NATO allies. NATO leaders are expected to formally endorse the plan in a communiqu'e to be issued today. Indeed, US officials confirmed that the allies have known key points of the plan for days.
``If it all comes true,'' says one West European diplomat, ``it could speed things up in Vienna considerably.''
This is a crucial point. NATO is caught up in an internal dispute over whether to open negotiations with the East on reducing short-range nuclear weapons. West Germany is pressing for early talks, while the US and other key allies are more cautious. Washington wants to put off any talks on short-range weapons until after significant progress is made in Vienna.
Yesterday's proposals could do much to diffuse the battle - since it could significantly accelerate conventional reductions.
Even then, however, a battle is looming. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has taken a hard line against opening early negotiations on short-range weapons. Mrs. Thatcher told allied leaders yesterday that such talks should only be considered after a conventional-arms agreement is negotiated and implemented. She praised President Bush's proposals, but also warned against taking any actions which might weaken Western defenses.
Alliance leaders are attempting to paint a strong picture of unity, even with the short-range issue simmering in the background.
``The key to successful management of East-West relations is the successful management of West-West relations,'' said NATO Secretary General Manfred W"orner.