Even as the United States girds for war over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, it is itself violating the global treaty banning chemical weapons.
American breaches of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), though strictly technical, are raising concerns about the future of one of the most sweeping arms-control treaties of the post-cold-war era, especially given that Washington has been its prime mover.
Nations believed to have illegal chemical-warfare programs, such as Iran, could cite the US breaches to justify their own, American officials and independent experts worry. Moreover, they say, the US now lacks the political and moral standing to challenge suspected violators of the CWC, which went into effect last spring.
"This is an area where we ought to be on the high ground," says a US official. "But ... we don't have a clean record ourselves."
America's record won't help the position of US officials concerned about monitoring the 168 nations that have so far signed or ratified the CWC. Already, they believe Iran may not have adequately declared its facilities that produce CWC-regulated chemicals. Iran's declaration is currently under review by the Hague-based organization created to monitor the treaty.
Though Iran joined the CWC, US officials are concerned the Islamic regime will try to hide what they believe is a major chemical-warfare program. Such a program would threaten the stability of the Gulf region and American forces deployed to ensure the free flow of the world's largest oil supplies, they say.
US failure to comply with key CWC requirements has other implications as well. Officials say it is irritating European allies and other nations already indignant over what they regard as double standards in the foreign policy of the world's most powerful nation.
"We should be setting the example, demonstrating leadership," concedes a Clinton administration official. "Instead, we are creating a perception of being nonchalant about very serious treaty obligations."
Objections to American "arrogance of power" may have helped cool international support for US plans to launch airstrikes on Iraq, if it continues defying United Nations efforts to uncover its illegal arms programs.
Independent experts say the White House and Congress share responsibility for US violations of the CWC.
"This sets a very poor precedent for other countries to do a less-than-perfect job in implementing this treaty," says Amy Smithson of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington policy research institute.
THE CWC breaches stem from Congress's failure to approve a bill needed to embed the treaty's provisions in American law. The Senate passed the measure after it ratified the CWC on April 24.
Since then, the House has passed a CWC bill, but lawmakers there linked it to a measure that would require the US to slap economic sanctions on Russia for allegedly supplying missile technology to Iran. The Senate is expected to approve that bill in March, but President Clinton opposes the Russia sanctions and threatens to veto it unless the two measures are delinked.
Without the legislation, the government cannot fulfill its obligation to declare all "dual use" chemicals - those that have civilian purposes but can be used to make weapons. The US should have submitted its declarations about private-sector production to the CWC monitoring organization last May. Until these are turned over, the organization cannot inspect the US chemical industry, the largest and most advanced in the world. The US has declared its military stocks of 29,000 metric tons of poison gas, however, and they have been inspected and are being destroyed.
"The key issue here ... is that we have declared our full military stockpiles and opened them to full initial inspection," says a GOP source. "We would argue that disclosure by companies is of less significance."
But private firms in Europe and elsewhere don't see it that way. They are being inspected, provoking complaints that their secrets are being put at risk while their US competitors enjoy an unfair advantage.
Independent experts have other bones to pick with Congress and the White House over the pending legislation.
They say the bill includes a provision allowing the US to block inspections of facilities by citing national security, the same argument Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has used to block UN arms inspectors from entering his palaces and other sites.
"If the US claims the right to deny a challenge inspection, then what's stopping the bad guys out there from doing the same thing?" says Dr. Smithson. "We are trying to put the same kind of restrictions on inspections that Saddam Hussein has been trying to put on the UN."