WASHINGTON - With President Clinton heading to Moscow soon for arms talks with Russian leaders, Texas Gov. George W. Bush warned yesterday that no new nuclear arms deal might be better than one "that ties the hands of the next president and prevents America from defending itself."
Bush's warning was aimed at preventing Clinton from making any agreement that might hinder U.S. efforts to deploy an anti-missile defense system. It was also a rare intrusion by a presidential nominee-to-be into high-level summitry.
In delivering his attack, Bush, who continues to face questions about his lack of experience in national security matters, surrounded himself with many of the architects of Republican foreign policy over the past 30 years, including his father's national security adviser.
Accusing Clinton of being "locked in a Cold War mentality," the likely GOP presidential nominee said it was time for a new post-Cold War defense policy that could include unilateral cuts in America's nuclear arsenal.
Bush warned Clinton not to "hamstring" the next president's ability to build a large-scale anti-missile system.
Clinton is "driving toward a hasty decision on a political timetable," Bush contended.
Clinton administration officials dismissed Bush's speech as campaign rhetoric, insisting he could not undercut the president's first summit with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on June 4.
"He is the governor of Texas," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, "not someone who's setting our national policy."
The expansive missile defense system the governor embraces is technologically unworkable and fiscally unaffordable, especially since he has promised a tax cut that would cost $1.3 trillion to $2.1 trillion over 10 years, Lockhart said.
Any major unilateral reduction in the nuclear arsenal would break 30 years of arms-control precedents, White House officials said. Those precedents compel U.S. and Russian leaders to reach verifiable arms-control treaties.
Much of what Bush is proposing - significant reductions in the nuclear arsenal, a missile defense system to protect all 50 states and pulling nuclear forces off high-alert - is precisely what the Clinton administration is pursuing, White House officials say.
Aides to Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, were more pointed in their criticism, seeking to paint Bush as irresponsible and dangerously inexperienced.
Bush "proposes to throw aside work done to develop a feasible missile defense in favor of an approach that would require us to start all over again from scratch," said Gore campaign spokesman Doug Hattaway.
The arms-control dispute comes at a sensitive time. With the United States and Russia still far apart, administration officials have worked hard to play down expectations for an arms-control breakthrough in Moscow.
Clinton and former President Boris N. Yeltsin signed a memorandum of understanding in 1997 stipulating that their countries move forward with arms reductions that would bring their nuclear arsenals to between 2,000 and 2,500 warheads.
Since then, Russia's deteriorating economy has made an arsenal of even that size financially unmanageable. Now, Russian officials are hoping for an agreement that would push stockpiles as low as 1,000 warheads.
If the United States could agree to such levels, the Russians could sign off on changes to the anti-ballistic missile treaty to allow for a limited missile defense system, said Kenneth Luongo, director of the private Russian-American Nuclear Security Council.
Clinton has quietly indicated he could go as low as 1,500 warheads, Luongo said, but the Pentagon's top brass and Republican leaders in Congress are trying to ensure that will never happen.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Ryan told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that they would feel "uncomfortable" going below the 2,000 to 2,500 warheads proposed under START III three years ago.
Bush gave his own assessment of such a deal.
"No decision would be better than a flawed agreement," he said at a Washington news conference.
Bush spoke at greater length than he has in the past about the need to extend anti-missile protection to America's allies. Shrugging off critics who say that such a system can never work, Bush expressed faith that scientists can overcome technological barriers. And he insisted that there would be enough money left in the federal budget surplus, after his tax cut, to pay for such a plan.
As president, Bush said, he would direct the Defense Department to study ways to reduce U.S. nuclear stockpiles - unilaterally if necessary. He said the United States should remove as many weapons as possible from "high-alert, hair-trigger status."
"We should not keep weapons that our military planners do not need. These unneeded weapons are the expensive relics of dead conflicts, and they do nothing to make us more secure," Bush said.
It was by no means clear that Bush would go as far as the Clinton administration did in a 1997 summit deal, in Helsinki, Finland, that settled on 2,000 to 2,500 warheads.
Bush foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters it was "conceivable but unlikely" that a Bush administration would settle on a number higher than that.
Joining Bush at the National Press Club were five of the most notable figures of U.S. foreign policy from the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush administrations, including former Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger and George Shultz and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.