IN the complex world of disarmament, there are times when it's best to move the pieces around the playing board, seeking incremental political or military progress toward stability and safety. And there are times when the arms control game itself should be ignored, when a unilateral and dramatic stand based on something as simple and straightforward as principle or morality should be taken. Chemical weapons fit the latter category, and it's too bad President Bush let the chance go by at the United Nations this week. What he should have said is something like this:
``For years, the United States has wanted to help rid the world of the scourge of chemical weapons. We used whatever diplomatic influence we had in international forums such as this to urge that their production as well as use be banned by all nations. At the same time, we believed the best way to do this was to modernize while reducing our own stockpile of such weapons, which we felt to be a necessary deterrent to any adversary who might be tempted to use them against us or our allies.
``But I have come to see that there can be no justification whatsoever for chemical weapons, just as there cannot be for biological weapons. To think otherwise is self-delusion, ignoring not only the horrible effects of poison gas but the fact that the victims most often are innocent civilians. Just recall the heart-rending photo of a Kurdish mother's last act: sheltering her baby from a gas attack by Iraqi troops.
``So I am declaring today that the United States will destroy its chemical arsenal, will cease producing new weapons, will never use them in combat. And I call on the Soviet Union and the rest of the world to follow our lead.
``Let me be quick to add two things: First, the US will respond immediately and forcefully to any chemical attack on us or our allies with whatever it takes to end such an attack. We have the means to do so, and we will not hesitate. And second, I will redouble my country's efforts to secure a verifiable worldwide ban on the production of chemical weapons. It will not be easy, but there are means to do so, including economic sanctions against violators and export controls against those who supply the means of production to countries like Libya. We hope the world will join us, but we will take these steps alone if need be. The important thing is, the time for radical action is now.''
Mr. Bush didn't say this. Instead, he talked about deep reductions some years from now, which in fact he's already obliged to do under US law. Unless and until the rest of the world signed on to a complete ban, the superpowers would still be able to produce ``leaner, meaner chemical weapons'' (as expert Elisa Harris put it in the New York Times).
That's not leadership; that's tentative maneuvering and a modest attempt to persuade. Where a real scourge like chemical weapons is concerned, much more is called for.