The Washington Times

The substance of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, now enmeshed in controversy over ratification by the U.S. Senate, is something over which reasonable people differ. On one side, the treaty may, at the margins, create a regime that deters nations from acquiring a nuclear capability – though clearly, the treaty will do nothing to stop the nuclear ambitions of a North Korea or Iraq, to pick two international menaces, nor would it likely have done anything to check the determination of India and then Pakistan to get the bomb. Russian and Chinese nuclear programs likewise seem to be proceeding apace.

Still, the U.S. government has been committed in principle (though hardly without dissent, it must be noted) to a test ban treaty for four decades. Our allies want us to ratify it, and they say that a repudiation of it in the form of the Senate voting it down would come at the price of serious international misgivings about whether the U.S. government means what it says, or whether U.S. declarations are subject to wholesale revision because of domestic political differences here.

The down side for the United States is the question of whether we can be sure that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is secure over the long term without testing. This is a deadly serious question, and military and scientific opinion seems divided. The fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists and that seemingly reliable reports indicate serious deterioration in Russian nuclear forces, while they are welcome developments, shouldn’t obscure the fact that the current position of U.S. dominance rests ultimately on the capacity to annihilate an enemy. That’s deterrence. And both we and any potential enemy must be certain of it.

Conservatives in this country have a long tradition of skepticism about the promises of arms control treaties, matched equally by liberal enthusiasm for arms control. Both these sentiments have their origins in the Cold War question of how best to cope with the Soviet Union. It is possible that the current debate reflects in part a continuation of that old argument into the radically changed world of 1999. Given the current position of U.S. dominance, however, the stakes with regard to ratifying or failing to ratify are certainly lower than they would have been amidst the old superpower confrontation. For this, we can all be thankful.

But if the substance of the treaty is debatable, the political effort on its behalf can only be described as laughable. The Clinton administration ought really to have learned something from its successful efforts to win Senate ratification of NAFTA and NATO expansion. Instead, the administration seems to have approached the matter primarily as a political power struggle in which the objective has been to try to shame Republicans enough to dislodge the two dozen votes that, with near-unanimous Democratic support would, make a two-thirds majority.

The NAFTA and NATO experience should have suggested the need for a sustained campaign of advocacy, begun early and aimed at genuinely answering objections and accommodating senators’ concerns. A partisan effort, organized around the general theme of Vote for This or You Are Bad, and You Run the Risk of Incurring the Wrath of the 80 Percent of Americans Who Support the Treaty, was doomed to failure and was fundamentally unserious. One should not be vilifying those one wishes to convert.

In the case of NATO expansion, the administration understood the importance of consolidating its efforts in one office and selecting a capable point man, Jeremy Rossner, who could work with Democrats and Republicans alike. In an environment of bipartisanship, or non-partisanship, Republican supporters of expansion were more than willing to speak up for the policy of the Democratic administration. Who, pray, is Mr. Clinton’s point man for a bipartisan effort on behalf of the test ban treaty? And why should such Republican supporters as the administration might have, or recruit, lend their voices to a campaign to discredit their Republican colleagues?

There is no guarantee that a serious effort on behalf of the test ban treaty would generate enough support for its ratification. But this hasty and misbegotten campaign doesn’t even begin to test that question. Proponents of the treaty within the administration have no one but themselves to blame, as supporters abroad will note.