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Time to Push Weapons Treaties–Not Block Them

Agreements banning chemical weapons and halting nuclear testing await Senate ratification. President Clinton and the Republican Senate need to rise above politics to pass these much-needed measures.
February 1, 1997

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.

Making the Case

The president could enlist many high-ranking Republicans, such as key GOP senators past and present; former Bush administration officials, such as National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, Secretaries of State James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger; and even President Bush. But such top Republicans won’t carry the administration’s water unless the president, vice-president, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen personally go to bat for the treaty.

Clinton will also have to rely heavily on top Pentagon officials and military brass to make the case for ratification. Skeptical Senators will need to receive intelligence briefings that reassure them about the ability to monitor the treaty and that stress how much worse the problem of chemical weapons proliferation would be without the CWC. Important friends and allies such as Israel could be enlisted to help make the case with selected senators that the best way to deal with stragglers and nonsignatories is to get the CWC up and running.

Another key advocate of the CWC is the Chemical Manufacturers Association, which was active in last fall’s ratification debate and was sorely disappointed with the administration’s eleventh-hour effort. The association is again ready to remind Republican senators that failure to ratify CWC could mean the loss of thousands of domestic jobs, since the treaty imposes penalties on trade in chemicals used to make weapons with countries that have not ratified. If the United States refuses to join the convention, production would therefore shift to countries that are members in good standing.

A second key to success is to shape the terms of debate early and often. The president must speak to the nation forcefully and consistently about his administration’s goals in reducing and eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Successful presidents clarify the stakes involved in a Senate’s vote; Clinton needs to explain the damage that would result to nonproliferation and anti-terrorist efforts if the Senate blocks ratification.

Finally, Clinton must make every effort to come to an accommodation with the Senate Majority Leader. He must seek to assuage Lott’s concerns without accepting crippling Senate conditions to ratification. Clinton could make sure that Lott is deeply involved in efforts to ensure effective compliance, while agreeing to send periodic reports to the Senate explaining how compliance concerns are being addressed. Rather than insisting upon the participation of all troublesome states, the Senate might be persuaded to condition U.S. ratification on the explicit right to demand withdrawal if a majority of senators believe that the treaty’s value is outweighed by the nonparticipation of key countries. It is better to accept the treaty with such an escape hatch than to reject it outright.

Trent Lott has a difficult decision to make, and the outcome of his deliberations will do much to shape the attitude of the Republican party toward international affairs. Lott has the power to kill treaties. But at the end of the day, he must choose whether to align the Republicans with irreconcilables like Jesse Helms or to reinforce a long history of Republican presidents and secretaries of state who have planted the flag of American leadership abroad. If Lott sides with Helms’s brand of isolationism, he is likely to damage U.S. national security as well as his party’s political prospects.

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