ARMS control, George Bush stressed a month ago, would not dominate the agenda at the Malta summit this weekend. This was a different kind of meeting, he explained. By this week, a significant disarming of Europe appears virtually inevitable. The White House acknowledges that now Mr. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev will talk about forces in Europe - without actually bartering weapons and troops - and that Bush will bring ``some ideas of his own.''
The atmosphere for military rollbacks is at its most promising since World War II, according to veteran arms control experts.
But the arms control accords that manage those rollbacks must shift their concerns from the cold war to a new era. Current treaty negotiations that began aimed at stabilizing the standoff between NATO and the Warsaw Pact may become more concerned with protecting Europe from a uniting Germany.
``Before it was East-West confrontation. Now it's Europe and Germany within it,'' says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.
The White House is committed to using two treaty processes already under negotiation to manage force reductions. For strategic nuclear weapons, the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) began under the Reagan administration. But Bush so far has given more attention to negotiating a treaty on nonnuclear forces in talks in Vienna on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE).
Most analysts say that growing momentum for deeper arms cuts and the shifting risks in Europe make these treaties more crucial.
``I think both sides now want the structure to manage the disengagement that is taking place,'' Mr. Mendelsohn says.
CFE, says John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, ``puts everybody's forces under control. ... We don't want any thought of independent German forces.''
NATO seeks troop levels of 275,000 on either side in CFE, which means a cut of 30,000 US troops and 300,000 Soviet troops. The Soviets seek a higher troop level of 300,000 on both sides.
Last June, Bush said he would like to see the agreement completed in six months to a year. Arms control professionals, who sometimes take more than a decade to negotiate a treaty, took that as a well-meaning but unrealistic goal.
Since the opening of East Germany's borders Nov. 9, however, and talk of deep military program cuts in Washington, those assessments have changed.
Skepticism of Soviet motives among American conservatives has receded sharply. Burton Yale Pines, senior vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, now says he and his colleagues take Mr. Gorbachev and his reforms at face value. He is optimistic about arms reduction.
``I believe we will have 75,000 US troops in Europe by the end of the century,'' he says. The US now has roughly 305,000 troops stationed in Europe.
Defense Secretary Richard Cheney was a leading conservative voice within the US administration until recently. For nearly two weeks, however, he has been floating suggestions of defense cuts that appear progressively deeper.
``I think it took people aback a bit in the White House,'' says an administration official identified with conservative views in foreign affairs. ``It's gotten way ahead of strategic planning and it's overtaking arms control. It makes CFE behind the curve.''
Two weeks ago, the White House was rejecting conclusions from a leaked preliminary report from the Central Intelligence Agency that Soviet military spending had decreased as Gorbachev had claimed. The evidence was mixed and inconclusive, the White House claimed.
Yet, a couple days later, Mr. Cheney cited the much reduced threat of attack from the Warsaw Pact and announced he had asked Pentagon budget planners to scale down their five-year projections by a total of $180 million.
He had briefed budget director Richard Darman and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft about his plans, a White House spokesman said. But the cuts had not been discussed in any White House interagency councils.
The Pentagon response, in plans leaked to the press this week, would take US forces below the levels called for by any proposed treaties. The plans would cut troops by a quarter million, give up 62 ships (of 562 now), and cut five fighter wings (of 24.5 now on active duty).
If the White House pursues cutbacks in Europe at this level, it will probably be in a new set of treaties, CFE II and START II, a spokesman says.
The administration is now taking pains to reassure the NATO allies that it will not move in arms control without consulting them. Britain, in particular, is concerned over the prospect of the US moving forces out of Europe. CFE talks involve 23 countries, so the Soviets and US have little headroom for bilateral action.