Time of testing

Posted: Nov 14, 2001 12:00 AM
Testing, testing. That word may be the leitmotif of the next three days – and not only for technicians checking out microphones used at summit photo ops featuring President Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. In fact, these two men are likely to be testing each other throughout their meetings beginning today in Washington and continuing on Wednesday and Thursday at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas. Testing will also feature prominently in what they will be discussing – and the consistency of whatever understandings they reach with U.S. national security requirements. Certainly, Mr. Bush will be testing his first impression that, having looked into Putin's "soul" a few months back, he can "trust" the Russian president. In particular, "W" will be exploring whether the former KGB agent has, in fact, morphed into a reliable partner, willing and able permanently to transform the earlier Cold War rivalry between their two nations into a new "strategic framework" compatible with the pursuit of common interests in Afghanistan and far beyond. Putin will, for his part, be testing his host as well. He wants to see what he can get from a President Bush grateful for Russia's early, if conditional, endorsement of the war on terrorism and the Kremlin's willingness not to object to U.S. use of former Soviet republics for the war against bin Laden and the Taliban. (It is, of course, unclear on precisely what grounds Putin could have objected; these "-stans" are now independent states and Washington should discourage, not encourage, Russian claims that they form a "near abroad" over which Moscow is entitled to exercise influence.) Specifically, Mr. Bush's guest will be pushing for a laundry list of American concessions. These will involve: trade (repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that helped win the Cold War by limiting the economic life-support the Soviets could obtain while maintaining repression at home); energy (Moscow wants the United States to follow Europe's lead in treating Russia as a reliable supplier, a step that could give the Kremlin undesirable economic/strategic leverage down the road); Chechnya (legitimating Russia's brutal campaign there on the grounds that it is just part of the war on terrorism); and proliferation (Moscow wants to continue selling to what we call "rogue states" but they call "clients," a laundry list of advanced conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction-related technologies). Testing will also feature prominently with respect to an issue expected to dominate the summit: missile defense. Fortunately, Mr. Bush has lately poured cold water on rising speculation that he was going to make a terrible strategic mistake – agreeing to preserve the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, he has correctly called "out-dated," "obsolete" and "dangerous" in exchange for Russian acquiescence to U.S. experimentation with anti-missile systems not permissible under that accord. Still, the president will be sorely tested by a tag-team of Russians, State Department diplomats and the media elite who hope such a deal will foreclose the deployment of U.S. missile defenses they oppose. Last, but hardly least, another kind of testing – of the nuclear sort – should be part of the summit agenda. President Bush is expected to announce that he is unilaterally ordering deep cuts in the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. By some accounts, he will direct that these forces be reduced to a level somewhere between 1,750 and 2,200 warheads. To Mr. Bush's credit, in so doing, he is explicitly rejecting the practices and follies of traditional arms control. American force levels will be set on the basis of what is deemed by our government to be necessary for U.S. deterrence and security requirements, not determined by the often arbitrary results of protracted negotiations with Moscow. In principle, since no treaty will be involved, should changes occur in the strategic considerations that made such low levels appear acceptable at the moment, the United States will have the latitude to adjust its arsenal accordingly. In practice, however, it is very likely that this country will find itself hereafter retaining no more nuclear weapons than the level announced by President Bush. He has, therefore, an obligation to ensure that the resulting arsenal is safe, reliable and credible as a deterrent – not only for the duration of his presidency, but for the foreseeable future. For that reason, Mr. Bush should make clear as part of his announcement of deep reductions in American nuclear forces that he is committed to ensuring the future effectiveness, as well as the safety and reliability, of the weapons that remain in the U.S. arsenal. To do so, he will authorize both the most rigorous imaginable maintenance of the strategic "stockpile" and its routine modernization. Both of these activities will require periodic underground nuclear testing. While the decision to resume nuclear testing will provoke criticism, there will be no better time than the present to take such a step. If Mr. Bush combines it with the announcement of deep cuts, his critics will be seen for what they are – irresponsible devotees of complete nuclear disarmament. (The president's courageous willingness to defy them was on display last weekend when his administration refused to attend a conference of nations supporting a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing.) In fact, in the absence of such a commitment to assure the future viability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, it is not clear that the nation can live with the very low levels of nuclear forces Mr. Bush prefers. It will certainly lack the ability to exercise the option to increase its arsenal should that prove necessary in the future. The American people have come, rightly, to have great confidence in President Bush's judgment. We must all hope that he will exercise it to good effect in the time of testing ahead.