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Reagan Flubs Reykjavik Summit

At his big meeting, the President’s obsession with Star Wars allowed Gorbachev to outmaneuver him on arms control

Reagan and Gorbachev

General secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan during their summit meeting in Reykjavik,Iceland, October 11th, 1986

Sovfoto/UIG/Getty

To Ronald Reagan and his entourage, the summit meeting in Iceland looked like the perfect photo opportunity. Three weeks before the midterm elections, Reagan would be pictured shaking hands with the smiling Russian in his Fifties fedora. The president would be portrayed in the media as an earnest peacemaker, diligently searching for ways to end the nuclear-arms race.

This time, though, the photos turned out badly. When he emerged from his bargaining sessions with Mikhail Gorbachev, the president looked stung, like a small boy who had burned his fingers playing with a light socket. Reagan came home empty-handed from Iceland, and for once he was wearing the black hat — the man who said no to a historic opportunity. Confronted by the chance to become a genuine peacemaker, the president retreated in confusion. His image-makers had been overwhelmed by reality.

The Russians are still klutzy at public relations, but this Gorbachev plays a shrewd game of poker — and he won big at Reykjavik. The Soviet leader kept upping the ante, offering real concessions toward arms reductions, and the president, surprised and unprepared, played along. Let’s eliminate all of the medium-range nukes in Europe, Gorbachev suggested. Okay. How about a test-ban treaty? Sure, we can work it out. Let’s both agree to dismantle half of our long-range nuclear missiles over the next ten years. Done, said the president. Then the Gipper got so carried away, he tried to top Gorby. Let’s eliminate all of our nukes, he proposed. Why not? asked the smiling Russian.

Now Gorbachev showed his hole card — everything depended on Reagan sacrificing his dream of laser beams in space, the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars. It was a demand that shouldn’t have surprised anyone, least of all the president; the Soviets have been insisting on an end to Star Wars for three years, ever since Reagan launched his space-defense program. But the president said no. He stumbled away from the table, looking very much the loser.

For the Gipper, it was a public-relations fiasco. Gorby smoked him out on the key question: How real was Reagan’s latter-day conversion to arms control? Not very real at all, the outcome suggested. Ultimately, Reagan was the same politician who had never believed in arms treaties with the Soviet Union, who was still committed to creating a vast new generation of weapons in space. By cleverly dramatizing the choice for a world audience — genuine arms reductions by the two superpowers or the construction of the American president’s Star Wars — Gorbachev scored a propaganda victory.

Back in Washington, the president’s own propagandists set about converting defeat into triumph. When the summit collapsed, Secretary of State George Shultz appeared on television, his face the pallor of a pallbearer’s, and announced the administration’s “deep disappointment.” Two days later, the secretary of state was comparing Ronald Reagan to Christopher Columbus.

“Columbus, having wandered around and discovered several islands, returned home and was greeted by skepticism, too,” Shultz told a private briefing for members of the House of Representatives. “In much the same way, the president has discovered a new world in Reykjavik — the new world of the Strategic Defense Initiative. The president has long realized that he has discovered a new world. Now others are beginning to perceive it.”

Some of the House members rolled their eyes and suppressed snickers. What the president had really done, one of them quipped, was “trade a bird in the hand for a pie in the sky.” The words and pictures from the White House once again failed to match reality.

When the fog of propaganda surrounding the White House dissipates, that should become clearer. If the American people can get an honest grasp of what Star Wars actually means for the future, they will understand how stubbornly wrongheaded their president was at Reykjavik. They will also grasp that the future holds great promise for serious arms control — with or without Reagan.

While all the inside facts may never be known, the savvy players from left to right are confounded by the administration’s inept performance. How did Reagan, the master craftsman of manufactured images, let himself get stuck in an embarrassing scenario where he became the heavy? Why did the president’s handlers in the White House and the State Department allow Gorbachev to set him up?

Representative Les Aspin of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed the bafflement shared by many arms-control strategists: “I think it was a trap. It’s a classic example of why you should never go unprepared to summit meetings and try to wing it. It came about because the White House thought it would get a painless summit out of this, a photo opportunity that would give Republicans a minipop going into elections.”

Reagan’s talk about eliminating all nukes was especially out of touch with reality. For one thing, the idea had not even been run past the generals and admirals at the Pentagon, who were, no doubt, clutching their breasts when they heard about it. Eliminating every nuclear missile is simply not a serious proposition. The fact that the president so blithely offered it as a gambit to preserve Star Wars suggests either that the man is playing word games with large questions of human survival or that he is even more ignorant of nuclear reality than any of us have imagined.

“It’s cuckoo,” Aspin said. “How did the White House get suckered into this? At what point did they get drugged into believing the deal of the century was on the table, the solution to all the world’s problems, the cure for the common cold and everything else?”

The president’s most conservative, hard-line allies in Congress share Aspin’s suspicion that Iceland was a setup from the start. The Republican hawks blame George Shultz for leading Reagan into a trap, pushing him toward the trade-off that the Soviets always wanted to make. “Shultz misjudged the Soviet plan and thereby contributed to the Soviet entrapment of the president,” a conservative on the Senate side complained. “Shultz had already pulled the president so far toward the State Department view, he thought he could get Reagan to go the last four inches and make a deal.”

My hunch is that the conservatives have it right. Reagan’s handlers were slyly coaxing him to do the sensible thing — to use Star Wars as a bargaining chip in exchange for significant reductions in nuclear arsenals. For months, they had hinted that such a trade was possible and maneuvered the president into a position where he could go for it and become history’s hero. They led the Gipper up to the trough. But then he balked and wouldn’t drink. Down deep, Reagan has never believed you could deal with the Soviets. Perhaps down deep he really does believe his own fantastic claims for Star Wars.

“He should have done the deal,” said Aspin, a hawkish Democrat who has often been allied with Reagan on nuclear-arms issues. “Trading SDI for a ten-year, fifty-percent reduction in nuclear missiles was worth it. But the president’s got this idea in his head — like no tax increases — that SDI is going to protect the world and that’s it. SDI is not going to protect the world. It just isn’t.”

For many Americans, the White House line probably sounds plausible: the Soviets have now revealed how scared they are of Star Wars. That must mean they think it can be made to work, despite the skepticism of many American scientists and the president’s political opponents. Therefore, the president was absolutely right to hold on to his high-tech defensive shield, even if it meant spurning the opportunity for real arms reductions.

The truth is that Star Wars is a deeply troubling prospect for both sides. The Soviets are scared of it all right, but so are many sober-minded and influential defense experts in and out of Congress. This year Congress cut SDI funding from $5.4 to $3.5 billion, which is enough money to continue research but not enough to realize the dream Reagan is selling to the American public — a network of laser weapons in space that would shield the entire population of the United States from nuclear attack. Around the Capitol, they call it Reagan’s Astrodome, and few members of Congress actually think Star Wars is technologically feasible. Most in Congress simply do not buy the president’s wishful thinking.

Congressional critics, like the Soviets, are worried first about money. The cost of Star Wars would be extraordinary; estimates range from $150 billion to $1 trillion. This is not just another expensive weapons system, but a vast project comparable in size to the construction of the interstate-highway system, which took more than a generation to build.

Given the awesome federal deficits, every billion spent on Star Wars will have to be taken from somewhere else. Given Reagan’s priorities, he would obviously choose to cut education, health, housing and aid to the elderly and underprivileged. What the president may not grasp, however, is that the money for Star Wars would also be taken from defense. This year Congress reluctantly cut spending on military basics like ammunition, training and spare parts. These items are less sexy than war in space, but they are the bone and sinew of national security. They guarantee military readiness, the ability of the armed forces to fight.

As this budget squeeze continues, the United States may once again wind up with the scandal of a “hollow army,” as one defense-minded congressman, Dan Daniel of Virginia, warned. The trillion-dollar defense buildup under Ronald Reagan is leading toward the same fundamental distortions in national defense that shocked Americans in the Seventies. Purchasing the president’s dream would be at the expense of well-equipped fighting forces — guns as well as butter. That is one reason why Congress is reluctant to buy it.

Aside from money, there is another, more fundamental reason why defense experts are worried: contrary to what Ronald Reagan proclaims, Star Wars is dangerous. The president is either disingenuous or plain ignorant on this essential point, though it’s hard to believe that no one has explained it to him. If the United States goes ahead with the development of space weapons, the result will be the destabilization of the nuclear balance and the creation of threatening new incentives for the construction of more nuclear weapons.

The Soviets are afraid Reagan’s real intention is to deploy Star Wars as an offensive weapon. Lasers in space won’t work as an effective defense against nuclear attack, but they could be used to knock out intelligence satellites, the eyes and ears for nuclear forces on both sides. In addition, were the United States to launch a preemptive attack, knocking out most of the Soviet Union’s missiles, the Star Wars lasers could be used to block the Soviets’ retaliatory strike, destroying whatever weapons they had left. The dreadful alternative for the Soviets would be surrender, without having fired a shot. Reagan, naturally, insists America would never entertain such a possibility. Gorbachev, naturally, does not believe him.

Indeed, skeptical Soviet strategists, studying Ronald Reagan and the hawks around him, will find plenty of evidence to support their worst suspicions about Star Wars. For twenty years, Reagan attacked presidents of both parties for letting the Soviets catch up in the nuclear-arms race. The United States, Reagan insisted, must achieve superiority in nuclear armaments — a euphemism for the capacity to fight a nuclear war and win it. Reagan advisers like Paul Nitze have further argued that superiority in nuclear-war fighting strength translates into useable political power — the ability to stare down the other guy in a diplomatic crisis and force him to accept terms. Thus, even if the United States never fired a shot, it could use Star Wars to push the Soviet Union into a corner.

For all these reasons, Star Wars sounds ominous to the Soviets. If the United States were to deploy it, the Soviet Union would have to respond with its own countermeasures. The most obvious solution (and the cheapest) would be to deploy more nukes — raising the odds against SDI’s chances of blocking out everything. Instead of long-range land-based missiles, the Soviets would likely concentrate on low-flying cruise missiles, which can be launched from submarines and bombers. Even true believers concede that Reagan’s Astrodome could not stop this type of weapon.

The real impact of Star Wars would not be eternal peace but a dizzying new competition in arms. Wasteful. Damaging to our economy and theirs. Dangerous. As the Soviet Union devises new ways to protect its missile force, hawks in the United States would insist on adopting new technological innovations designed to neutralize Soviet weapons. On and on. It is not that opponents of SDI have no faith in technology, Congressman Aspin explained. On the contrary, they are confident that new technology will continue to be developed that will thwart old technology — and get around the perfect defense.

The two propositions — Star Wars and arms control — are strategically contradictory. The Soviets see the American president pumping up enthusiasm for space weapons in the United States at the very time he is urging the Soviet Union to cut its nuclear force in half. But if Reagan is serious about Star Wars, the Soviets should logically be building more missiles. In other words, the president cannot have it both ways — not in the real world. Thanks to Iceland, that choice is now starkly drawn for all to see.

When the fog clears, the president’s predicament will look like this: Gorby will tour Western Europe, reminding audiences mat it was the Americans who refused to trade. Meanwhile, Congress will watch and wait to see if Reagan can reopen the bargaining. If he can’t, then Congress will draw a tighter noose around SDI funding (the president blames the “liberals,” but actually this year’s fight against Star Wars funding was led by defense-minded conservatives and moderates).

“If things are still as bleak next year as they are now,” said Aspin, whose opinions swing middle-ground votes in the House, “then the president’s going to have trouble on SDI funding. Some members of Congress are true believers, but others were willing to vote for SDI because they assumed it was a bargaining chip to be traded away. Well, if it’s not a bargaining chip, he loses those people, and that leaves only the true believers, who are a minority in Congress.”

Gorby has the best hand — he can flog the Gipper in global propaganda and wait for the 1988 elections, or he can offer Reagan a limited deal, perhaps settling for reductions in intermediate-range missiles in Europe, as a token of earnest. One advantage of dealing with Reagan is that any treaty he signs would likely sail through the Senate toward ratification with little bluster from conservatives. The next president, if he makes the trade and deals away SDI, will have to endure the usual right-wing accusations of sellout, including, no doubt, anguished complaints from the Reagan ranch.

The general sense in Washington is that despite his slick poker playing, Gorby is sincere about wanting to make a historic trade. “I think the deal is probably still there,” Aspin said, “but the Russians may decide that the deal is not there for Ronald Reagan to pick up again. They can play P.R. in Europe and blame Reagan, figuring they can still make the same deal with the next president.”

American public opinion rallied around the president at first, as it always does in moments of international crisis. When the facts about Star Wars become clear, as arms-control activists and presidential candidates peel back Reagan’s unreal claims for it, the balance ought to shift away from him.

“Other voices will begin to be heard,” Aspin predicted, “and people will say, ‘What was the matter with the deal in Iceland? Why didn’t he take it?’ ”

The most optimistic advocates of arms control believe that Reagan’s inadvertent contribution to history has been to create a dynamic that will lead inevitably to real action on nuclear weapons — with him or without him. “If Reagan doesn’t give away Star Wars,” Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, predicted, “then the next guy is going to give it away in 1989. Historically, you can’t stop it. I don’t care if the next president is George Bush or Mario Cuomo, Joe Biden or Bob Dole, the deal is going to happen.”

It still sounds too good to be true. For the first time in two generations, plausible outlines are now visible for stopping the arms race and even reversing it. But if the world ever reaches that distant shore, perhaps it will someday remember Ronald Reagan as the Christopher Columbus of arms control. The man who found a new world when he was looking for something else.

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