A MAJOR reversal of United States policy brought a worldwide ban on chemical weapons closer this week. But much hard negotiating remains if such a pact is to be completed by next year, as President Bush wants. Significant obstacles still to be overcome include disagreements over how a chemical treaty would be verified, the structure of a treaty oversight council, and who would pay for treaty implementation.
``Meeting this 12-month deadline Bush talked about will be difficult,'' says Lee Feinstein, Arms Control Association research director.
Nor would the world be made quickly and easily chemical weapons-free after a treaty went into effect. The US program to destroy chemical stocks by burning has met some resistance from citizens who live near proposed incinerators.
Other nations have not mastered destruction technology. The US plans to provide technical advice to anyone who wants it - including the Soviets.
``One problem we have had is with the pace of the Soviet ability to get funding and approval for a specific chemical-weapons destruction program,'' said a senior administration official at a briefing on chemical-weapons control. Still, for proponents of a world chemical-weapons treaty, President Bush's moves this week were good news. If nothing else, they could well improve the atmosphere in Geneva, where chemical arms talks resumed Wednesday with delegates from 39 nations and observers from 34 more.
``It's a major breakthrough,'' says Mr. Feinstein.
Perhaps the most important development was Bush's dropping his insistence that the US should be able to keep a small reserve of chemical weapons after a chemical treaty went into effect.
The theory behind the previous position was that the US should retain the right to retaliate in kind against any chemical-weapon attack by a rogue state which was not a treaty signatory. In practice this position was extremely unpopular among the Geneva delegates, the Bush administration now admits. Only the Soviets endorsed it.
Along with agreeing to get rid of all chemical stocks during the treaty's proposed 10-year phase-in period, Bush said that the US would forswear use of chemical weapons for any reason, effective when a treaty enters into force.
Those moves were widely interpreted as evidence that the Gulf war experience proves conventional firepower is more than adequate to deal with the threat of chemical attack - even, as with Iraq, against a country demonstrably willing to use poison gas.
Why Saddam Hussein didn't use chemical weapons remains one of the primary mysteries of the Gulf war. In a recent interview, Adm. David Jeremiah, vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he thought Iraqi chemical stocks may have been kept in centralized storage deep in the country, and that there simply wasn't time to disperse them for use.
Other parts of the White House chemical-weapons control package announced Monday include creation of a government-industry task force to assist other nations in chemical-weapons destruction; an offer of blueprints of US production facilities to other chemical-weapons nations; and a proposal that the chemical-weapons talks stay in continuous session in an effort to wrap up all major issues by the end of this year.
To a certain extent, the US chemical-weapons initiative is removing obstacles it placed there itself.
But the proposals are ``quite likely to create an atmosphere in Geneva where compromise can be reached'' on still-outstanding issues, says Elisa Harris, a Brookings Institution chemical weapons scholar.
The primary outstanding issue now is the question of verification-challenge inspections, Harris points out.
In 1984, the US proposed what is in essence an ``anywhere, anytime'' approach to challenge inspections of suspected chemical sites. Other nations were less enthusiastic about such a sweeping approach.
Though this position hasn't been officially abandoned, there are signs the US is moving toward a compromise, say negotiation observers. One solution may be a British proposal of ``managed access'' challenge inspections, in which certain sensitive equipment is allowed to be shrouded, or inspections are allowed only in randomly chosen sections of a particular building.
Other, more technical outstanding issues include who pays for the treaty's implementation. Poorer countries don't want to have to pay to help watch over destruction of large US and Soviet chemical stocks. What a chemical treaty executive oversight council will look like has yet to be determined - if all signatory nations have a representative, the council will be far too unwieldy.
Following congressional direction, the US Army is already planning to get rid of all its old chemical weapons by 1999. On-site incinerators are planned for the eight US depots where chemical munitions are stored.
Local opposition to this plan is particularly heated near the Lexington-Bluegrass site in Kentucky, where a significant population has grown up around the old depot.