The Senate vote on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was more than just the defeat of a flawed agreement, it signaled the coming of age of a majority of Americans on the futility of trying to defend the country through arms control.
The Senate has traveled a long and tortuous road from its ratification of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 1972 by a vote of 88-2 to its defeat of President Clinton’s CTBT in 1999 by a near party-line vote of 51-48. This is not just a Senate transition. The vote reflects the concerns of many Americans who have had enough of the arms control nostrums favored by the liberal elite of the Democratic Party.
The ABM treaty has taught us the folly of promising to ban forever certain weapons or defenses and limit the use of new technologies. The arms control lawyers who carefully crafted that treaty nearly three decades ago committed future presidents never to defend the country against ballistic missiles. Then they added details banning forever sea-based, air-based, space-based, and mobile ground-based defenses, and said if new technologies like lasers were perfected we would have to negotiate with the Soviets before deploying them.
Did they have a crystal ball that told them we never would have to worry about some madman in Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea or China? Did they think missile technology would never spread? The ABM treaty was signed with the Soviet Union alone. Did they think the Soviet Union would last 1,000 years? Today the Soviet Union is no more, but the ABM treaty lives on, still blocking effective missile defenses for this country. The drafters of the ABM treaty said not to worry, we always could withdraw from it by giving Moscow six months notice. That proved easier said than done.
The treaty took on a life of its own. Now it is a symbol of strategic stability for Mr. Clinton and his new strategic partners in Moscow and Beijing. Despite numerous intelligence warnings that the Soviets were violating the ABM treaty, the evidence always was too ambiguous. No one was willing to abandon a treaty when cheating could not be proved beyond a doubt. But eventually there was proof: Moscow deliberately violated the treaty by building an enormous battle management radar at Krasnoyarsk.
The CTBT would have been even more difficult to verify. Low-yield nuclear tests can be conducted in underground caverns in ways that make detection almost impossible. And if such tests are detected, they can be explained away as earthquakes, landslides, conventional explosions, or other non-nuclear events. In short, the CTBT is unverifiable. But also, like the ABM treaty, it would tie the hands of future presidents, who would never be able to test a nuclear weapon regardless of future events.
Mr. Clinton’s goal in pushing this treaty so hard, in addition to giving him something other than impeachment as a legacy, was to force the elimination of America’s nuclear weapons. Forget the rhetoric about restraining the Indians and Pakistanis. Their primitive bombs may actually prove beneficial in preventing new wars on the Subcontinent. The real goal of the arms controllers is to eliminate America’s nuclear weapons by preventing future presidents from ever testing them.
Loaded with anti-nuclear activists, the Clinton administration has done everything it could to gradually eliminate America’s nuclear deterrent. Pushing the CTBT was an effort to impose that policy on the next president. But Senate Republicans have learned a lot about arms control since 1972. More than half the Senate voted against the CTBT, and if the ABM treaty were brought to a vote today, it too would fail to win a simple majority, let alone the 88 votes it garnered 27 years ago.
In this era of peace and prosperity one of the few defining differences between Republicans and Democrats is how to defend the country. The Clinton White House believes an interlocking structure of arms control agreements can guarantee national security. Republicans no longer buy that. They have seen others violate treaties with impunity, while strict U.S. compliance has prevented effective defenses.
Treaties are only as good as the governments that sign them, and governments change. Long before Saddam Hussein, Iraq signed the Geneva Convention promising never to use poison gas, but Saddam used it extensively in his war with Iran. The Soviet Union signed the Biological Weapons Convention agreeing never to develop biological weapons, and then conducted a massive secret effort to do just that.
Unverifiable treaties that ban weapons and limit technologies are dangerous.
If Democrats want to make the CTBT an election issue, let them. For most Americans, a strong defense trumps an unverifiable treaty.
James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.