During his presidential election campaign in 1980 Ronald Reagan described the SALT II arms agreement with the Soviet Union as “fatally flawed.” But as president he has honored an informal agreement with the Soviets to accept the terms of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which was signed on June 18, 1979—seven years after SALT I—although it was never formally ratified by the United States. Then, last week a fierce debate erupted in Washington over the future of the accord, dividing Reagan’s cabinet and creating criticism among U.S. allies.
The debate began at a meeting of Reagan’s National Security Council on June 3. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger argued that Moscow had
consistently breached the treaty to restrict the deployment of nuclear missiles and he said that Reagan should announce that Washington would no longer comply with its terms. Secretary of State George Shultz countered that such an announcement would give the Soviets a powerful propaganda tool at the current arms control talks in Geneva. Although the agreement officially expires this year, it could be extended, as SALT I was when it expired in 1977. Reagan deferred a decision until NATO officials had a chance to discuss the issue. That message was delivered last week: abide by the treaty.
At a two-day conference in the Portuguese resort town of Estoril, NATO foreign ministers told Shultz that abandonment of SALT II would damage the
arms-control process and remove the last barrier to an all-out arms race. One day earlier the U.S. Senate sent a similar signal to the White House when it voted 90 to 5 for compliance. The alternative, said Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, would be “dangerous, even reckless.”
The administration’s most immediate problem was how to honor the treaty but still proceed with sea trials for a new 24missile Trident submarine, the Alaska, in the fall. The deployment of the submarine will take the United States over the treaty limit of 1,200 multiple-warhead missiles. To meet the treaty’s strict terms Washington must dismantle one Poseidon submarine, which carries 16 missiles. But some officials have sug-
gested that the navy simply honor the spirit of the accord and take the older submarine out of active service.
Arms-control advocates say that deploying the Trident could lead eventually to the collapse of restraint. But hardliners contend that the Soviets have already undermined controls. Said the assistant secretary of defence, Richard Perle: “These are actual violations, not ambiguities, and they are part of a Soviet strategy of erosion.” For their part, most independent strategists say simply that neither side has lived up to the treaty. Declared William Arkin of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies: “The Soviet Union is like an American driver. It doesn’t go 55 miles per hour, but it doesn’t go 100 either.” -IAN AUSTEN in Washington.
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