President Bill Clinton’s legacy on reducing weapons of mass destruction will be decided by a U.S. Senate controlled by Republicans. At stake is the ratification of two treaties essential to devaluing weapons of terror and isolating states that wish to flaunt them: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Depending on the outcome of Senate ratification, Clinton and his new team can either build on the successes of his first term or go down in history as the president on whose watch critical treaties went unratified and promising postCold War initiatives foundered.
Last September, Republican irreconcilables in the Senate blocked the CWC, despite this accord’s direct descent from efforts in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Another successful blocking action against CWC in Clinton’s second term would not only shelve that accord but also effectively kill prospects for ratifying the Test Ban Treaty: the Clinton team, not wanting to risk two punishing treaty defeats, would probably withdraw the test ban from consideration.
In this century only two major treaties have died because of irreconcilable Senate opposition: the League of Nations Covenant, signed in 1919, and the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), signed in 1979. Both treaties sank largely because of the opposition of an ambitious Senate Republican leader. President Woodrow Wilson, who championed the League, clashed with Henry Cabot Lodge; Jimmy Carter withdrew SALT II from consideration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ended all hopes of convincing Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker to support the treaty. Much is therefore riding on Clinton’s ability to work with new Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott-just as President John F. Kennedy persuaded a skeptical Republican Senate leader, Everett Dirksen, to swallow his reservations and support the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963.
The odds for ratification seem to favor President Clinton. Most treaties pass the Senate with votes to spare, and no powerful constituency is clamoring for the right to develop, produce, and use chemical weapons-the activities the CWC would ban. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would end the testing of nuclear weapons and the production of new warhead designs, has also garnered widespread public support. Nevertheless, the administration yanked the CWC from Senate consideration last fall after Lott joined Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jesse Helms in opposition. This triumvirate questioned the treaty’s utility, given the likelihood that some states presumed to have chemical weapons, such as Iraq and North Korea, would not ratify it. The Republican leadership also expressed grave reservations about the adequacy of verification provisions.
The requisite 65 countries have ratified the CWC, so the treaty will go into force April 29 no matter what the United States does. But American participation matters. Unless the U.S. Senate votes to ratify, we will sit on the sidelines. So will Russia and China, who are waiting for Washington’s decision. Without participation by the United States and Russia, with their combined chemical weapons stockpiles of more than 70,000 tons, the CWC will be a hollow shell. And without U.S. inspectors and U.S. leadership, the ban will be ineffective.
Years Lost to Partisanship
Supporters of the CWC were disappointed by the Clinton administration’s lack of urgency in pursuing treaty ratification. During Clinton’s first year in office, treaty supporters were the primary culprits, seeking an expansive prohibition on riot-control agents as “a method of warfare.” Overriding Pentagon qualms, the administration decided that the CWC would not allow tear gas use for some humanitarian purposes where combatants and noncombatants are intermingled, such as rescuing downed air crews. It took ten months to resolve this issue and to send the treaty to the Senate.
The administration’s second year was lost to treaty ratification because of White House passivity and a leisurely Democratic-led Senate review of the treaty. When phone calls were desperately needed by the president, vice-president, and secretary of state to move the CWC onto the Senate floor in the second half of 1994, none were solicited or made.
In 1995 and 1996, with the Republicans in control of the Senate and the presidential campaign under way, the CWC’s prospects dimmed further. Jesse Helms, a staunch opponent of the treaty, became chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Bob Dole’s departure from the Senate to run for president gave the Senate’s reins to the much more partisan Lott. Then in the heat of his doomed candidacy, Dole accepted hard-right advice to deny Clinton the photo opportunity of a treaty ratification ceremony. With the Republican presidential nominee and its Senate Majority Leader both firmly opposing ratification, prospects for securing the necessary two-thirds vote were uncomfortably thin. The Clinton team wisely decided to pull the CWC and fight another day.
Unfortunately, the new Senate is notably lacking in moderate Republicans with sufficient standing to elevate treaties above partisanship. Unless overridden by Majority Leader Lott, Helms is likely to stonewall the CWC. Irreconcilable treaty foes will again use the tactic of attaching “killer amendments.” Last September, Lott joined Helms in demanding that the U.S. intelligence community certify that it could monitor treaty compliance with “high confidence” before the treaty could be approved. Even with the CWC’s unprecedented inspection provisions, such confidence is impossible to guarantee. The Republicans will also try to block the nuclear test ban, which-lacking the Reagan-Bush imprimatur of the chemical treaty-engenders even fiercer GOP opposition.
There is no secret to a successful ratification campaign. One key is to avoid at all costs a partisan divide. Successful presidents work hard at lining up the support of key senators early rather than waiting for the eleventh hour. President Wilson lost his crusade for the League of Nations-a popular idea in postWorld War I America-because he made it a partisan battle. Wilson kept Senate Majority Leader (and Foreign Relations Committee Chair) Lodge at arm’s length during negotiations and refused to enlist the help of any Republicans of stature.