Missile Mess Will Weaken Clinton in Moscow Talks

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Why should Russia deal with the clown when they could deal with the ringmaster? That, in essence, was the message to Moscow on Wednesday from GOP leaders concerning President Clinton's planned summit with President Vladimir Putin in June to discuss nuclear matters. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms vowed to block any new arms control agreements by the Clinton administration, while presumptive Republican presidential nominee George Bush said he'd reject any agreement that bound the hands of the next president from cutting his own deal, and also vowed to scrap the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty if Russian failed to accept amendments that would allow Washington to build its politically popular "Star Wars" national missile defense system.

Despite deep reservations in Washington over everything from the system's cost (up to $60 billion on top of $60 billion already spent) to its viability (tests of the system's prototype interceptor missiles have been decidedly hit-and-miss) and its purpose (defense analysts believe the "rogue states" the system is supposedly designed for are likely to prefer terrorist methods over missiles to attack the U.S.), national missile defense has become an enduring favorite of both the White House and Capitol Hill. But building the system would violate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and Moscow has not only refused to negotiate a loophole for Washington, but has warned that violating the treaty will void all subsequent arms control agreements and precipitate a new arms race.

While the Clinton administration spins optimistically about the President's prospects of negotiating a deal, GOP leaders are reaching for the mantle of President Reagan. They're out to persuade voters that they're the best guarantors of the "Star Wars" defense, while reprising the Gipper's hardball style in dealing with Moscow. But Russia's concern is that the U.S. wants to develop a system that could destabilize the nuclear parity that served as the basis of Cold War peace, and it's not surprising they're alarmed that the hypothetical threat posed by rogue states appears to have superseded the concerns of the world's other major nuclear power in Washington's thinking. If Moscow believes nuclear parity is threatened, it may be no more receptive to the take-it-or-leave it brinkmanship of the GOP leaders than to the soothing salesmanship of a lame-duck Bill Clinton.