Into the Evil Empire

Richard Perle, an old Kremlin foe, finally gets to Moscow

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He has been cast as the arch-antagonist of arms control and Moscow's most ardent adversary in Washington. But for all his oft-quoted disparagement of the Soviet Union, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle had never been there. Last week Perle, as one of the key members of a seven-man U.S. mission to Moscow, finally found himself in the land that he, like President Reagan, considers to be the "evil empire," and talking about arms control to boot.

With his incisive mind, infighting skills and intense dedication to a hard- line ideology, Perle, 44, has emerged as the most influential Assistant Cabinet Secretary in 25 years. His pessimistic approach to arms control, along with a swarthy complexion punctuated by the dark circles of his eyes, has earned him the nickname Prince of Darkness. He can be haughty, yet in person he hardly fits the role of dark prince: he has a soft voice, sophisticated Francophile tastes and a willingness to work amiably with bureaucratic colleagues while remaining fiercely loyal to his beliefs.

As a bureaucratic power player, Perle has been adroit at reinforcing the vehemently anti-Soviet philosophy of his boss, Caspar Weinberger. He has a knack for choosing the right time and place to force decisions and for making key bits of information public as part of his effort to obstruct any serious compromises by Washington that could woo Moscow into an arms agreement. But + when it comes time to deal with the outside world, Perle can be an effective team player. Indeed, he was among the first officials picked as part of the U.S. delegation to Moscow last week because he had proved himself constructive in two crucial meetings with the Soviets. This time as well, Perle was praised by his teammates for working with them, not against them.

The mission, led by Chief Arms-Control Adviser Paul Nitze, originated with a Soviet invitation ostensibly designed to get the stalled nuclear arms negotiations moving by clarifying the latest positions of each side. Yet when Perle and the six other Americans arrived on Sunday, they found their Kremlin counterparts to be unresponsive and even a bit uncivil. There was no fanfare in the Soviet press, nor was there a welcoming delegation at the Moscow airport. Under the current Soviet sobriety crackdown, there was no vodka either. The choice of an elegant suburban dacha for the talks was intended to encourage constructive informality for discussions normally cemented in rigid protocol. But behind the lace curtains, the Soviets proved standoffish.

It was "four of them against seven of us," reported one U.S. official. In effect, it was also Communist Party Leader Mikhail Gorbachev's June 23 letter outlining Soviet arms proposals vs. President Reagan's July 25 counteroffer. With those documents as their bibles, the two teams sparred across a green felt table for two days as each exhaustively ran down its prepared script. Only in the last hours did the discussions get intense, as each side sought to pin down more precisely what the other side's complex and often ambiguous proposals meant. Explained a senior U.S. official: "We talked a lot about broad concepts of offense and defense, what is related, how it would work."

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