Last week, hours before a scheduled vote on ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, Senate supporters announced a postponement. The necessary two-thirds majority had become doubtful.
How could this be? During the Bush years, 75 Senators, including majorities in both parties, signed a petition urging an international ban on poison gas. When the convention was established in January 1993, the Bush administration and 159 other nations signed. And bipartisan support continued under President Clinton. Last April, after three years of committee hearings that examined every clause and comma, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 13-5 for ratification.
Yet the week before the anticipated vote, some former government officials issued statements in opposition. If the US ratified, they said, industry would suffer intolerable costs, countries would cheat, and the world would become more dangerous.
From the Reagan administration, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Attorney General Edwin Meese, and UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick now declared the treaty ineffective and unverifiable. Where were they when the Senate committees were providing testimony that answered these concerns? Whether the newly emerged critics affected any senators is unclear. But a statement by Bob Dole did.
Previously silent on the matter, Mr. Dole weighed in on the side of treaty opponents a day before the expected vote. As a result, informed judgments yielded to support for the party's presidential candidate. Acknowledging that the election season had warped the issue, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana and others suggested reconsideration next year.
Outright rejection of the treaty would have been devastating, but even postponement is not a happy step. With detailed provisions for international inspections, the convention goes a long way to prevent cheating.
While no treaty can be foolproof, ratification has been endorsed by notables with a thorough understanding of the issues, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the current and previous directors of central intelligence, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and arms-control experts from the Bush and Clinton administrations. Their conclusion: American participation would enhance our security, commercial, and counterproliferation policies.
Allegations that the treaty imposes undue expense on private companies are upside down. Since nonparties will face trade restrictions by countries that have joined, US failure to ratify will cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually in lost exports.
The larger problem with US inaction is the message it conveys: apparent unconcern about the countries with chemical weapons programs. The number of countries has doubled in the last decade, and there are now some 25. The convention is the most promising vehicle to reverse this trend.
The treaty will enter into force after 65 countries ratify, and 63 already have. But successful implementation is hardly conceivable without US participation. By enhancing an international norm against these weapons, parties to the convention will have greater justification to act against anyone who violates that norm. Moreover, the 160 countries that have signed represent 97 percent of the world's population. If all the signers become parties, the pressure to join on governments representing the remaining 3 percent would be overwhelming.
Since the convention obliges members to enact laws to monitor chemicals that go into weaponsmaking, terrorists would have more difficulty acquiring these materials. The US has committed to near-total elimination of its chemical arsenal anyway. We can only benefit, therefore, by encouraging others to do the same.
An acknowledged weakness of the League of Nations and its inability to secure peace was the US's failure to become a member. Despite US participation in establishing the organization, the Senate never ratified the agreement. The US also has been instrumental in drafting the Chemical Weapons Convention. The League experience should be a lesson. Let's not wake up in the 21st century to chemically drenched battlefields that might have been avoided by Senate action.
*Leonard A. Cole teaches political science at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. His new book, "The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare" (W.H. Freeman), will be published in November.