Don't Allow Chemical Weapons Agreement to Fail

`IT'S now or never." That was the refrain heard during a recent visit to observe the chemical weapons talks at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Negotiations toward achieving a universal ban on the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons have been going for decades, but the future of those efforts is now uncertain.

Some ambassadors are optimistic that a Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) can be achieved this year. But most predict an inability to finish an agreement this year dooms the talks to failure: Delegations can head home if agreement is not reached by August.

We cannot allow this to occur. The circumstances are now highly favorable for concluding a CWC. Dramatic changes in the US negotiating position last year, the Gulf war, the change in East-West tensions, and elections in key countries create a climate for conclusion.

There are three major obstacles to producing, at long last, a Chemical Weapons Convention:

1. The lack of a binding deadline to force hard decisions and compromises;

2. A Byzantine US interagency process that hamstrings the US negotiating team.

3. No Western unity on "challenge inspections."

Hard decisions are usually put off until the last moment. This is certainly true in Congress, where legislative initiatives must always butt up against inflexible deadlines like holidays, elections, and adjournment before compromises are made. Unfortunately, the procedures by which the US negotiating team has been directed to operate remain a major impediment to our ability to meet even our own deadline.

The US team is headed by one of our most skillful negotiators, Ambassador Stephen Ledogar, who cut his teeth on the talks to end the Vietnam War and who, most recently, was instrumental in bringing the Conventional Forces in Europe talks in Vienna, Austria, to conclusion.

Yet Mr. Ledogar has been given little negotiating authority at the Conference on Disarmament and must repeatedly maneuver through a time-consuming interagency process which requires many executive departments and agencies to approve even the simplest changes. Unless President Bush shakes the American delegation loose from this cumbersome interagency labyrinth, he will fail in his goal of achieving a total, universal ban on chemical weapons use and production.

It would be a sad irony if the man who in 1984 as vice president tabled the text which now forms the basis for negotiations, and who last year as president appeared to have jolted the talks from their stagnant state by announcing bold changes in US proposals, would fail to capitalize on those initiatives and instead fall victim to the rusty mechanics of his own unduly restrictive negotiating process. The president should trust ambassador Ledogar to negotiate in the best interest of our country as he has ably done in the past.

Similarly, Mr. Bush risks fumbling the ball in the last seconds of the game if he remains intransigent on his challenge-inspection proposal. One of last year's least popular changes in US policy was Bush's withdrawal of his previously offered "anytime, anywhere" inspection proposal. The president proposed instead a weaker inspection regime which, if currently in effect in Iraq, would allow Saddam Hussein to block US inspectors.

The new US proposal has been nominally supported by Great Britain, Australia, and Japan and fairly vigorously supported by China. However, Germany and France remain adamant in their demands that the "managed access" challenge inspections developed by the US and Great Britain in a series of trial inspections could form the basis for a new Western position that would have the strong support of all of its members.

One promising development is an Australian initiative to craft a final text of the CWC and circulate it outside the conference among foreign ministries and capitals. It is impossible to continue working with an eight-year-old text filled with bracketed, conflicting language. Australia has made an effort to balance the interests of East-West nations and North-South nations and bring coherence to an unwieldy document. Just as they provided leadership in stemming chemical weapons proliferation, the Australi ans are now providing the sort of leadership essential to concluding the CWC.

Now is the time to schedule a high-level ministerial meeting, the date of which would serve as a deadline for completing the CWC text. BIssues such as the makeup and role of the executive council, the site of the inspection headquarters, and the method of financing the bureaucracy can be decided at the ministerial level instead of the Conference on Disarmament, since these are political issues. It would also give the ministerial talks a substantive focus. We might heed the ambassadors participating in th e talks and recognize that the time for conclusion of a CWC is now or never. We can achieve agreement if Mr. Bush will seize the opportunity and if some event, such as a ministerial meeting, serves as a deadline for conclusion.

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