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President Bush says the dispute over short-range nuclear weapons that has split NATO could be resolved before next week's 40th-anniversary meeting of the alliance.

"I think great progress has been made" in efforts to reconcile U.S.-West German differences over possible negotiations on the missiles, Bush said Sunday during a joint news conference in Boston with French President Francois Mitterrand."I think that we could well have this resolved before the summit," Bush said.

Still, the dispute remains a "vexing question" and "there are strong-willed people from strong countries, and they each have an opinion," he said after he and Mitterrand gave back-to-back commencement speeches at Boston University.

"One way to guarantee there will not be progress is to lock each other in, in public statements," Bush added.

The United States, after first opposing Bonn's suggestions for early U.S.-Soviet talks on reducing short-range missiles in Europe, has sent a counterproposal to West Germany agreeing to accept such talks in principle in the future, according to Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

However, the United States first wants to see the Soviets reduce their conventional-force edge, a position Bush reiterated Sunday.

In his commencement address, Bush said that "though hope is now running high for a more peaceful continent, the history of this century teaches Americans and Europeans to remain prepared."

Mitterrand, who has generally agreed with the U.S. position, said his role was not that of a mediator between the United States and Germany on the issue.

"Obviously, I'd be happy if views can be reconciled, and I believe, I think, that they can be reconciled," he said.

Mitterrand, in response to a question, refused to agree with a statement last week by White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater that Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev was acting in a "drugstore cowboy fashion" in making a succession of arms-control proposals.

"I think that one must be wary of caricatures. Mr. Gorbachev is worth very much more than that," Mitterrand said.

Bush had entertained Mitterrand at his oceanside vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine, for the weekend.

After the Boston University appearances, Bush bade the French leader farewell at a military departure ceremony at Boston's Logan Airport, where Mitterrand boarded his Air France supersonic Concorde for the return trip to Paris.

Bush then traveled to Greenwich, Conn., where he visited his ailing 87-year-old mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, for about 1 1/2 hours. Mrs. Bush is recovering from a mild stroke. Bush returned to Washington Sunday evening.

In Boston, Bush met with his vanquished 1988 Democratic presidential challenger, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. The two shook hands at a pre-commencement reception.

In his commencement speech, Bush was sharply critical of recent comments by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze that the Soviets' "commitment to destroy SS-23 missiles under the (1987 treaty to eliminate medium-range nuclear weapons) may be reversible."

"The Soviets must surely know the results of failure to comply with this solemn agreement. Perhaps their purpose was to divide the West on other issues. Regardless, it is clear that Soviet `new thinking' has not yet totally overcome the old," Bush said.