Under the Missile Tow

Bill Clinton warned his fellow Democrats not to underestimate the political skills of George W. Bush. Now the new president has shown just how clever he can be.

He surprised Russian President Vladimir Putin at their meeting in Italy on Sunday with an offer to discuss sharp cuts in nuclear missiles on both sides along with Mr. Bush's plan to deploy a missile defense shield. Mr. Putin quickly accepted.

In fact, Putin was probably not that surprised by the offer from Bush, who's been linking missile defense and a reduction in nuclear warheads in speeches for over a year.

On the face of it, this potential deal on both offensive and defensive military systems would reshape - perhaps for the better - the global security structure that remains largely stuck in a cold-war "mind set," as Bush put it. It could launch a cooperative security system.

At the least, Bush's offer shows he may not be the "unilaterialist" that Europe and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle fear he is. By consulting with Russia on arms control, Bush treats the former superpower as an equal, relieving political pressure on Putin at home to keep Russia from being isolated in the geopolitical game.

A deal would also greatly help Moscow save money by needing to maintain only 1,500 to 2,000 deployed warheads instead of its present 6,000. It would also free up money for the US to build a defense shield.

That's all the good news. The potholes lie in actually working out the details and providing diplomatic cover for Putin to eventually condone the US shield.

Then, too, Bush is in a rush, with plans to start constructing the first elements of the shield in Alaska within months, a step that would be seen as violating the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

The two sides have already made mutual threats to get to this point of deciding to talk: Bush threatened to pull out of ABM with due notice, and Putin threatened to put multiple warheads on missiles and somehow work with China to oppose the US shield. Returning to such public threats should not be necessary now.

Still, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev tried to link talks on offensive and defensive systems in 1986, and failed. But those were cold-war days.

Now, however, Putin says the talks represent a "joint striving."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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