Curtains for Chemical Weapons

THE White House decision to end US chemical weapons production, including the development of two key new weapons systems, is an overdue shift in policy. The US could not have continued indefinitely to push for a multilateral treaty in Geneva to destroy chemical weapons, while at the same time continuing to build and stockpile new ones. Political changes in Eastern Europe cast doubts on the strategic rationale for chemical weapons. Moreover, the two new weapons systems were running into technical problems. Certification for the Bigeye bomb has been delayed numerous times. The other system, chemical-loaded artillery shells, is on hold because the two US companies that could produce the needed thionyl chloride refuse to do so.

Still, the decision took political courage on President Bush's part. The Pentagon fight for chemical weapons has been a long and bitter one, dating to the early 1970s. Chemical weapons were the only system that Congress did not approve during President Reagan's first term.

The policy shift paves the way for a US-Soviet chemical weapons agreement at the May 30 Bush-Gorbachev summit. Both sides are expected to agree on destruction of all but 5,000 tons of chemical weapons. Gorbachev needs a clear US commitment to get such an agreement past his military and the Supreme Soviet.

Unfortunately, it appears a chemical weapons agreement may now be the only military treaty reached at the summit.

A Bush-Gorbachev agreement on chemical weapons reductions also means the Soviets will lobby in Geneva on behalf of the US ``2 percent'' proposal. Mr. Bush hopes this proposal will lead to the end of chemical weapons production worldwide.

One caveat: The White House should agree to end the binary chemical weapons program this year. So far, the timetable has been vague. But the issue should not drag out. Why not tie action to the summit agreement itself?

This would show both good faith - and good leadership.

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