The year was 1969. The President, Richard Nixon. The issue, biological weapons. Nixon's decision? The US would lead the world by unilaterally renouncing biological warfare. The Pentagon was ordered to start destroying all its stocks of biological weapons.
Nixon's action was welcomed internationally. Other nations followed suit. Washington set the pace for negotiations on an international convention against the development, production, and holding of biological and toxin-based weapons. In 1970, 110 nations voted in favor of this convention. First President Nixon, then President Ford, urged ratification by the Democrat-controlled Senate. In December 1974, the Senate finally voted "aye," and the following month President Ford signed adherence to the convention into law.
How times have changed.
And the issue has changed too - from biological weapons (whose prospect always aroused pure horror throughout the civilized world) to chemical weapons, which were widely used in World War I and have been strongly condemned as inhumane ever since.
These days, it is a group within the GOP that is holding up Senate approval of the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). This despite the fact it was Presidents Reagan and Bush who led the international effort that resulted in the convention. This treaty adds a new prohibition on developing or holding chemical weapons to existing global bans on using them, and requires signatories to destroy their existing chemical arsenals within 10 years.
Sixty-eight other countries have now ratified the convention. With or without US participation, it will enter into force internationally on April 29. If the US is a signatory by then, Americans can feel satisfied that Washington's leadership has once again helped make the world a slightly safer place.
All the top US generals involved in fighting the Gulf war support the convention. They are intimately familiar with all the risks associated with chemical weapons - even our own - and they strongly prefer never to have to fight in a chemical-weapons environment. They know that Saddam Hussein and a handful of other holdouts have not signed the CWC, and as of now probably have no intention of doing so. But, still, they know that the CWC can seriously limit these leaders' ability to lay hands on needed chemical ingredients.
If President Clinton is not empowered to sign the convention by April 29, the picture will be bleak indeed. The American reputation for leadership on this issue - which Washington has for years described as crucial - will be distinctly tarnished. Other countries, not the US, will decide exactly how the convention's limits on the global chemical trade will be put into place. Quite likely, their decisions could prove detrimental to American business. The Chemical Manufacturers' Association has estimated that "as much as $600 million a year in US export sales will be placed at risk should the US refuse to ratify the Convention."
So what is causing the Senators to hold up their support for the CWC? I hope, on a matter as important as this, that petty partisanship is playing no part. In fact, the central divide is not between the parties, but rather a struggle deep within the Republican majority to determine the direction it will take on a range of international issues in the course of the 105th Congress. Respected, international-minded GOP leaders like Sens. Richard Lugar, John McCain, and John Warner are all on record as supporting the CWC. Can they succeed in winning enough of their fellow Republicans to their views before April to allow the ratification to proceed?
If they can, they will be upholding a fine GOP tradition. No one, after all, could ever accuse Richard Nixon of being a softie - but he was someone who well understood (if he sometimes misused) the enormous power of that elusive quality, "leadership."
If Lugar, McCain & Co. are not successful, then the US may rapidly lose its leadership on the chemical-weapons issue. Existing international norms against the proliferation and use of these wildly indiscriminate weapons will inevitably weaken. And the next time Americans face a foreign foe like Saddam Hussein, or even some particularly ruthless domestic terrorists, we may well be forcefully reminded of the ghastly images from World War I.
But the next time, because of the general advance of technology, the effects could be far worse.
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.