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Talking Down Germ Warfare

May 29, 2001



If the United States favors international cooperation to address problems of global scope, it can't afford to insist on doing things its way.

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That was one lesson from the Bush administration's decision to opt out of the Kyoto protocol on global warming. Washington had legitimate concerns about that treaty - concerns that predated the new administration - but they could have been more carefully voiced within the context of continuing cooperative efforts. That would have reassured allies who were stunned by the US decision to withdraw.

The same dynamic surrounds the issue of proliferating biological warfare capabilities. It's a problem of global proportions, and Washington appears poised to go it alone.

After a cabinet-level review, the administration is reportedly ready to reject a protocol, six years in the making, that would give real teeth to a 1972 treaty banning the development, production, or possession of biological weaponry, such as germ-laden shells or warheads.

In this case, too, the objections to the protocol raised by Bush defense and diplomatic aides are substantial. They include concerns that procedures for inspection and verification aren't tough enough to deter cheaters. Case in point: Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which hid its programs to develop biological weapons under various food- and medicine-production guises. US critics of the protocol also worry that random inspections called for by the pact could allow trade secrets of US pharmaceutical companies to be stolen.

For protocol writers, these concerns pose a Catch-22 of sorts: Tougher inspections are needed, with fewer exemptions for industrial facilities - but such inspections mean more intrusions on company turf.

Such drafting difficulties, however, pale beside the need to do something to curb a particularly insidious and dangerous type of weaponry. Proponents of the protocol, which has an acceptance deadline of this November, argue persuasively that some enforcement system - though far from perfect - is better than no enforcement at all.

At the least, agreement on a protocol would signal a global commitment to tackle the problem. Also at the least, the United States should stay engaged with the process of crafting a workable enforcement structure, regardless of its concerns about the currently circulating draft.

That will reassure allies, and give no comfort to those rogue nations and terrorists who would be all too happy to have the world's only superpower stand aside.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor