You could have found a grander bargain last weekend at Saks. The big missile deal–give up strong offense, gain strong defense–didn’t happen. But it didn’t quite not happen either.

Zealous White House aides floated the plan in the U.S. press several weeks ago. Russian President Vladimir Putin, they suggested, would agree to changes in the 1972 antiballistic missile (ABM) treaty to allow the Untied States to build and deploy a limited missile-defense system that could counter threats from rogue states like North Korea (and maybe non-rogue China). President Bill Clinton in turn would agree to a new strategic-arms reduction treaty–START III–cutting the number of nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles to a level Russia can afford to maintain. That would be 1,500 for each country, fewer than Pentagon officials believe is prudent.

The two sides agreed in a joint statement that the proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction changes the “international security environment.” Does that imply change in the ABM treaty? Well, the two presidents recalled “the existing provision of the ABM Treaty to consider possible changes in the strategic situation that have a bearing on the provisions of the Treaty, and, as appropriate, to consider possible proposals for further increasing the viability of the Treaty.” And while this diplomatic thumb-sucking proceeds, “discussions will intensify on further reductions in the strategic forces of the United States and Russia within the framework of a future START-III Treaty.” In one of the few clear sentences in the statement, the ABM and START talks are tightly linked: “…issues of strategic offensive arms cannot be considered in isolation from issues of strategic defensive arms and vice versa–an interrelationship that is reflected in the ABM Treaty and aims to ensure equally the security of the two countries.”

Taken as a whole, the joint statement is muddle and murk, with no paths opened and no options closed. Just what might be expected from a conversation between a president on his way out and one on his way in.