Slings and Arrows: Verification Isn’t the Issue

President Reagan and Vice President Bush continue to assure the skeptical that any arms treaty they support will be “verifiable.” What their loyal supporters need to explain to them is that verification isn’t the issue.

The issue, as Reagan aide Fred C. Ikle once put it in an article for Foreign Affairs, is this: “After verification, what?” Opponents of a forthcoming deal to remove medium-range missiles from Europe need to drop the word “verification” from their 1988 stump speeches and debate-briefing papers. The word is “enforcement.”

The distinction was hammered home in February of 1984, when Reagan met with members of the General Advisory Commission on arms control, which analyzes whether the Soviets have violated existing treaties.

Reagan listened with unusual attention, a GAC member told me, as the commission outlined a pattern of what Chairman Bill Graham called “serious and repeated” violations. Among the treaties violated, the GAC told Reagan, are the ABM treaty, a 1972 treaty limiting defense against nuclear weapons; the 1972 and 1979 SALT agreements, which are supposed to limit offensive weapons; and a long-standing pact on chemical arms.

GAC members reached the end of the meeting expecting the discussion to turn to possible U.S. responses. But Reagan, my GAC source says, turned to Laurence Silberman, another GAC member, and said: “I just want to thank you and assure you that any treaty we sign will be completely verifiable.” Silberman sat, a little perplexed, then looked Reagan in the eye and said:

“Well, Mr. President, that’s good to hear. But I do want to clarify that what:has happened is, we have already verified that the Soviets are in violation. It’s a question of what to do about that. You see, it’s similar to the role of a policeman and a judge. The policeman catches the criminal and verifies what he has done. The judge decides what to do if he’s guilty.”

Reagan looked down, shuffled some papers, then looked back at Silberman, and said: “And that’s why I want to say that any treaty we sign will be 100 percent verifiable.”

It’s worth remembering that many of those who now question the verifiability of a Euromissile treaty once said we couldn’t verify the ABM treaty, the SALT agreements, and other pacts. Evidently we could, because the hawks now charge we have verified Soviet cheating.

In fact, verification is a relative thing. The National Security Council, a published report says, has concluded that the present version of the Euromissile treaty leaves about 40 percent of Soviet activity unverifiable. Conversely, 60 percent of it is verifiable. Indeed, by eliminating a whole class of weapons, a Euromissile treaty would in many respects be more verifiable than many past arms agreements. It’s easier to determine whether there are zero such weapons, and zero tests of them, than to determine if the Soviets have 742 or 646 of them.

But after verification, then what? The U.S. Senate has voted unanimously that a Soviet radar near Krasnoyarsk violates the ABM treaty. Even ABM treaty defenders, such as Robert McNamara and Leslie Gelb, concur. So does Reagan. Yet Reagan has taken no action commensurate to the provocation.

Historically, Reagan and other U.S. presidents have failed to take action. Therein lies the problem. There was rich irony recently, for example, when Bush told fellow Republicans that, as president, he would seek a pact on chemical weapons. As President, Mr. Vice President, you would already have an agreement on chemical weapons. The Reagan-Bush administration says the Soviets have cheated. How would you enforce it?

Pulling nuclear missiles out of Europe is a good idea. It will help scare our allies into providing for their own Eurodefense, something they will provide if forced. It is verifiable.

But by failing to rebuild America’s defense, even as the Soviets violate key treaties, the Reagan administration has sewn deep distrust as to its seriousness. As arms control expert Dave Sullivan put it: “It’s better to say nothing at all than to accuse the Soviets of cheating and then do nothing. Then you’re telling the Soviets, and the whole world, that you know what’s going on but are too weak to act.”

Rebuilding confidence won’t be an easy task, but here are some options:

  • Pull out of the ABM treaty.
  • Deploy 100 defensive missiles as a safety net defense, allowable even within the ABM treaty.
  • Declassify the proceedings of the Standing Consultative Commission, where we have listened to bogus Soviet “clarifications” of their cheating for 15 years, to no avail.

A dime’s worth of enforcement now would beat a dollar’s worth of verification later. And it would get some of us hawks solidly behind the president’s verifiable treaty to pull hundreds of nuclear missiles from Europe.


  • Gregory A. Fossedal

    Gregory Fossedal (born 1959) is an American writer and political/economic theorist. At the time this article was published, he was a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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