WORLD

Bush makes his mark

The President’s dramatic peace initiative

JOHN BIERMAN June 12 1989
WORLD

Bush makes his mark

The President’s dramatic peace initiative

JOHN BIERMAN June 12 1989

Flying to Brussels last week for NATO’s 40th anniversary summit, President George Bush faced two formidable obstacles. One was his failure to match Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s public relations flair as a high-profile peacemaker. The other was the potentially damaging division within the Western alliance caused by his opposition to West German demands for early negotiations to reduce, if not eliminate, European-based short-range nuclear forces (SNF). But with one hurriedly drafted set of proposals and an inspirational speech, Bush solved both problems—at least for now. He established himself as a leader with a coherent world view and he patched up NATO’s threatened unity. Most importantly, he set in motion a process to significantly reduce conventional forces in divided Europe. Declared the President: “We want to free Europe to become the centre of co-operation, not confrontation.”

Bush’s achievement in Brussels on May 29 and 30 was widely hailed within the Western alliance, which has become increasingly concerned over his apparent lack of leadership. NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner called the outcome of the summit “a triumph for all of us.” But as Bush, plainly buoyed by that triumph, continued on to Bonn and London later in the week, there were indications that at least two leaders were somewhat unhappy. London sources said that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been even more adamantly opposed than Bush to short-range nuclear-missile talks with the Soviets, was disturbed by the concessions that he made to the Germans. She was also plainly concerned at media reports that West Germany had emerged as a more important member of the Western alliance than Britain. For his part, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said that he was “disappointed” by the Bush plan’s stipulation that the short-range negotiations could only follow full agreement on conventional force reductions. And some U.S. analysts charged that the Bush proposals were hastily made—and could eventually damage Western security.

Before Bush took office on Jan. 20, he instigated a detailed foreign policy review before undertaking any major initiatives. But as the months passed, critics on both sides of the Atlantic began to fault him for failing to respond to Gorbachev’s succession of dramatic arms-reduction announcements. Last week, the President said that “I knew all along exactly what we wanted to do.” But according to administration sources, the arms-reduction plan he unveiled at the NATO meeting was not the product of his lengthy review process. Instead, they said that he and his close advisers formulated it in the 10 days preceding the Brussels summit during a conference at the Bush resort home at Kennebunkport, Me. U.S. “ Secretary of State James Baker denied those reports.

The proposals themselves are far-reaching. They call for the two superpowers to reduce their troop levels in Europe to 275,000 men each—a U.S. reduction of 30,000 men and a Soviet reduction of 325,000. They also include a concession to the long-standing Soviet demand to include combat aircraft and helicopters in conventional force reduction talks now under way in Vienna. Under the Bush plan, NATO and the Warsaw Pact would have equal numbers of aircraft at levels 15 per cent below the Western alliance’s current holdings. The proposals—incorporated in the summit communiqué—call for the two sides to complete talks within six to 12 months and to carry out the cuts by 1992 or 1993.

However, aides said that Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand both had reservations about the combat aircraft reductions, which would seriously affect each nation’s independent nuclear capability—and would be difficult to verify. And Thatcher was openly skeptical of the time frame for agreement, describing it as “very optimistic.” But observers agreed that her biggest setback had been Bush’s change of position on short-range nuclear missile negotiations, which he previously opposed as strenuously as she had. Currently, NATO deploys—primarily in Germany—about 700 short-range Lance missiles with a reach of 130 km. NATO had planned to upgrade those weapons in the mid-1990s, extending their range to up to 500 km—just short of the intermediate range of missiles that were withdrawn under a 1987 agreement. But instead of upgrading, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his dovish foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher—heavily pressed by public opinion—have called for a reduction, if not elimination, of the short-range force. And they have demanded early negotiations with the Soviets for mutual cuts. By contrast, the Americans, the British and most senior NATO officers contend that short-range nuclear missiles are necessary to maintain peace in Europe, even after conventional forces have been equalized to maintain the policy of “flexible response.” And they say that SNF reductions could eventually lead to the so-called third zero—the complete denuclearization of the continent.

In reaching a compromise formula last week, the NATO leaders sought to reconcile those opposing viewpoints by sanctioning negotiations on a partial reduction of SNF—with the word “partial” underlined in the communiqué. But the talks would begin only after the two sides had reached an agreement on conventional arms and begun to implement it. That would delay the start of SNF talks until 1992 at the earliest. Bush and Thatcher described the compromise as a vindication of their joint position. “The words are clear,” said Bush. “There is no elimination [of short-range nuclear forces]. Partial means what it says.” Thatcher was even more pointed: “It’s all written there very firmly indeed, and wriggle as [the Germans] may, just read what they signed.”

But the Germans expressed a contrary view. Kohl’s security adviser, Horst Telshik, told reporters that “there will be no third zero before 1992”—implying that there might be one after that date. Said Kohl of Thatcher: “[She] stood up for her interests in her temperamental way. She’s a woman, and I’m not.”

After NATO foreign ministers had finalized the wording of the communiqué, some members of the alliance sought credit for the wording that made the agreement possible. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney credited the “deft pen” of External Affairs Minister Joe Clark. The Dutch made a similar claim for their foreign minister, Hans van den Broek. Other conference sources claimed that it was Baker who came up with the idea of underlining the word “partial”—a formulation that proved to be specific enough to satisfy one side and vague enough to placate the other. But more than mere word juggling was involved. Conference sources said that Bush’s rhetoric and the substance of his unexpected proposal on conventional arms reductions altered the dynamics of the summit, heading off the threatened showdown over short-range nuclear forces.

Following the summit, Bush travelled to West Germany late last week and took a well-publicized tour of the Rhineland region with Kohl. The chancellor called Bush “a true friend of our country,” and White House aides conceded that the President was trying to show his support for Kohl’s beleaguered Christian Democrats in upcoming city and state elections. As part of that effort, he delivered a major foreign policy speech in the riverside city of Mainz, outlining proposals “to heal Europe’s tragic division.” The Cold War began when Europe was divided at the end of the Second World War, recalled Bush, and it “can only end when Europe is whole.” He proposed four steps to achieve that objective:

• “Free elections and political pluralism in Eastern Europe.”

• The demolition of the wall dividing East and West Berlin.

• The sharing of expertise by environmentalists from each power bloc to combat pollution, “which knows no borders.”

• Acceptance by the Eastern Bloc of his proposals for conventional arms reductions.

From West Germany, Bush went to London, where he had talks and dinner with Thatcher and lunch with the Queen. The President described his two-hour exchange of views with Thatcher as “frank”—arousing speculation that the prime minister had expressed displeasure at the concession made to the Germans over SNF. Standing beside Thatcher outside 10 Downing Street, Bush added, “It is only with friends that you can take off the gloves and talk from the heart.” He insisted that the traditional Anglo-U.S. special relationship remained unimpaired, while Thatcher maintained that her conversations with the President had been among “the most valuable and happy” she has had with any leader.

But there were some faint indications of a cooling in Anglo-U.S. relations from their high during the Reagan presidency—and a warming of links between Washington and Bonn. Thatcher declined to provide a direct assessment of any change. Said the prime minister: “It is quite wrong that because you have one friend you exclude the possibility of other friendships. We pride ourselves on being among the firmest of the United States’ friends and we will always be.”

Meanwhile, analysts in Washington gave differing interpretations of Bush’s arms plan. Said Capt. James Bush, associate director of the liberal Centre for Defence Information: “We are not that happy. The proposals were pretty much a last-minute decision. President Bush was tired of Gorbachev being the only person talking peace.” Edward Luttwak, a hawkish longtime consultant to the Pentagon, added, “Our entire system of security and stability is being dismantled by Soviet initiative.” But Barry Blechman, a former senior official of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, said that the Bush plan was “very good, a step in the right direction.” He added, “It will bring about a much more stable military balance in central Europe.”

At the close of a momentous week in Europe, the debate over Bush’s plan continued. But whether the initiative was indeed a hasty reaction to what the media call “Gorbymania”—or a carefully thought-out policy—seemed to be almost irrelevant. The Bush initiative had spared NATO a crisis of disunity, and it had moved a divided and heavily armed Europe one significant step toward a brighter future.