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AS A FORMER ACTOR, President Reagan should have known better. After all, timing is essential in Hollywood, just as it is crucial for successful diplomacy. By announcing a deployment plan for the MX missile so soon after the death of Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, the President may have ruined the most important scene to be played out in U.S. Soviet relations for years.
The MX decision was a long time coming. Plans had been bandied back and fourth, including one for an underground, mobile system and another--endorsed Monday by Reagan--for a "dense pack" of missiles that will be clustered in "superhardened" silos. So in some form or another, the MX was going to happen. But Reagan would have been much better advised to delay his decision a little longer in light of Soviet overtures to the United States for an improved rapport. Consequently, the MX announcement is the wrong signal to Moscow at the wrong time.
Signs that the Soviet Union wants to get back on the road to detente have been numerous this week. Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper which usually devotes much space to haranguing Washington, ran several front page editorials calling for "normal, and better yet, friendly" relations with the United States. Such improved relations, wrote one editorialist, "would meet the interests of both peoples and universal peace." Speeches by new Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov and Prime Minister Nikolai A. Tikhonov expressed thoughts similar to those put forth in Pravda.
The newspaper also praised participants in the American-Soviet Trade and Economic Council meeting held last week in Moscow for showing an "inclination" to improve trade 'links between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. "Sound trade strengthens foundations for peaceful, good-neighborly relations which are of much importance for the international situation as a whole, "Pravda maintained.
Such signs, which may seem to be no more than rhetorical fluff, should not be underestimated. Kremlinologists say that the Politburo uses Pravda and other papers as a mouthpiece for Soviet policy; the friendly comments put to paper last week represent a positive change--however small--in Soviet foreign policy. Reagan's MX move is sure to put a chill on this new-found warmth.
In his televised speech Monday night, the President admitted that the U.S. "would prefer that the Soviets dismantle SS-18's [their intercontinental ballistic missiles] rather than we build more holes." Since Moscow is unlikely to scrap its SS-18's. Reagan would have done much better to aim at finding a mutual compromise. The SS-18 question is on the START negotiations agenda; Reagan could have emphasized that and put off the MX a while longer, at least long enough to see what else Andropov and Co. might do to better relations.
Reagan did say that he is prepared to advance new arms control proposals to the Soviets. But his periodic outbursts of hard-line language were enough to counteract any benefit his more peaceful statements might bring. The MX plan, said Reagan, "would require the Soviets to make costly new technical developments if they wish to even contemplate a surprise attack. Most of the Soviet countermeasures proposed are really no more than technical dreams on which no Soviet planner or politician would bet the face of his country."
Such remarks can only fuel the arms race, not stop it. The Soviets have played catch-up before; if forced, they will do so again. Reagan is squandering a rare opportunity to improve U.S. Soviet relations. And unlike the movies, diplomacy usually doesn't allow a second take.
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