Chemical Charades

THE Bush administration has taken considerable pleasure at times in portraying Mikhail Gorbachev as someone who is prone to make gestures for effect and to play to the crowd. At the United Nations last month, however, in his speech to the General Assembly on chemical weapons, it was George Bush who appeared to be confusing drama with substance. ``For the sake of mankind, we must halt and reverse this threat,'' he said, as the delegates applauded. The size of the cuts he proposed was impressive: a unilateral United States reduction of its chemical-weapons stockpiles by 80 percent if the Soviets reduced to an equivalent level, and a second phase that would eliminate 98 percent of all US toxic weapons supplies, if all 40 nations of the Geneva Conference on Disarmament would sign a treaty banning chemical weapons. In the third phase, America would move to eliminate all such weapons in its hands, as soon as the other nations possessing them had begun to do the same.

When Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze appeared on the same podium the following day and urged that the two superpowers move even faster to scrap their stockpiles of these weapons, there was reason to be optimistic that historic progress was about to be made in an area of arms control that had seen little real progress since 1925.

Skeptics pointed out that the US could still proceed to develop advanced binary weapons, and that the first phase of the president's proposed reductions, which had already been mandated by Congress, amounted to little more than the elimination of bulky, outmoded, and dangerous agents that probably had little military use today. But the real problem with the Bush proposal, as Mr. Shevardnadze indicated in his speech, was that meaningful levels of US and Soviet stockpile reductions were tied to the actions of other nations that had the weapons. The two superpowers, he said, should ``go further and assume mutual obligations prior to the conclusion of a multilateral convention.''

In the days following Bush's address, Victor Karpov, chief of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's arms control directorate, explained the need for this additional US-Soviet commitment. The flaw in Bush's approach, he said, was that meaningful cuts in superpower chemical stockpiles could be blocked if even one nation refused to sign the treaty. White House aides appeared to underscore the point when they made clear which countries concerned them most as ``chemical powers'' - Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

The problem here is not just the obstreperousness of some of the governments that are developing toxic weapons. It is the lack of any link in the Bush proposal between chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. Syria, which supported Iran against Iraq in the Gulf war, knows very well that Iraq has taken significant steps toward the development of nuclear weapons. Pakistan, which is suspected of developing both chemical and nuclear weapons, fears that its neighbor India, which has already successfully tested nuclear weapons, may also be working on chemical agents.

Most important, all three countries whose chemical-weapons programs worry the White House - Libya, Syria, and Iraq - have very good reason to fear Israel, which has already developed and may have tested nuclear weapons, and is busily developing chemical-biological agents. At the international conference on chemical weaponry in January, it was the Arab delegates who insisted on the chemical-nuclear linkage, citing Israel's nuclear arsenal.

The US government is being hoisted on its own policy of ignoring Israel's nuclear-weapons program. US presidents similarly have been reluctant to pull the plug on Pakistan and other third-world countries with which we have a security relationship.

One price we pay for this policy of selectively looking the other way on nuclear weapons is that it deprives the US of credibility on the matter of chemical-weapons proliferation. Asking certain countries to sign a treaty banning only chemical weapons, and not nuclear weapons, is in effect asking them to unilaterally disarm in the face of their traditional regional enemies.

Shouldn't the president and his aides have seen that, when drafting the ``dramatic initiative'' chemical-weapons speech last month? Even worse: What if Bush and his staff did see all this, but went ahead with the speech anyway, simply for the effect? The General Assembly is a bully pulpit for, uh, playing to the crowd.

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