A raging battle over whether the US should ratify a treaty banning nuclear-test explosions poses extraordinarily high risks for both the Clinton administration and its Senate Republican foes - and appears to mark the collapse of a 35-year bipartisan consensus in favor of arms control.
Yesterday, each side was looking for a face-saving way out of a scheduled up-or-down vote on the global Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
Republicans were recognizing that if they voted the treaty down, in the first-ever Senate repudiation of an atomic-arms pact, Democrats could paint them as nuclear war-mongers in next year's elections. For his part, President Clinton was looking to avoid a humiliating foreign-policy defeat.
Whatever the outcome, one thing has become clear: The bir
partisan arms-control consensus of the cold-war era, which produced overwhelming votes to ratify every key nuclear treaty ever brought to the Senate floor, has for the most part evaporated.
"The political situation is different from anything I've ever seen in 30 years," says John Rhinelander, a member of the US delegation that negotiated the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) with Moscow.
This divergence is rooted in a post-cold-war debate over how best to preserve America's military and economic power. On one side are those who believe US preeminence can be locked in through treaties and dialogue that advance democratic values and priorities shared with much of the world. On the other are those who contend that the United States faces an uncertain future filled with multiple threats, and that maintaining martial, technological, and economic dominance is the only way to defuse them.
The only nuclear-weapons treaty not ratified by the Senate was the 1979 SALT II. While it ran into GOP opposition, it was never voted on because President Carter withdrew it from consideration after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Senate GOP leaders are urging Mr. Clinton to do the same with CTBT, saying it lacks the 67 votes - two-thirds of the Senate - needed to pass. "If the vote occurs, I hope and I believe the treaty will be defeated," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, who surprised the administration last week by scheduling the CTBT vote for next Tuesday, after a two-year delay.
Acknowledging an uphill fight, Clinton said this week he intends to press on. "It would be, in my judgment, a grave mistake not to ratify the treaty," he said. Yet administration officials won't rule out the possibility that Clinton might yet withdraw the CTBT.
The White House and its backers say the treaty's defeat would be a devastating blow. It would cost the US the leadership of the global nonproliferation movement, they say, and kill any hope for creating a worldwide monitoring system to curtail atomic-arms development by "rogue" nations such as Iraq.
The US, which conducted more than 1,000 blasts to certify new bomb designs and ensure that older warheads still worked, halted testing in 1992. It is now pursuing a $45 billion program that replicates test explosions, using the world's fastest computers and new high-energy experiments.
Critics say the CTBT would undermine US security. They say the ban could not be verified and would be flouted anyway by China, Russia, or rivals like Pakistan and India, which detonated tit-for-tat nuclear tests last year. They also argue that periodic test blasts are needed to ensure the safety and reliability of the aging US arsenal.
Both sides attribute the collapse of the bipartisan arms-control consensus of the cold war to a number of causes.
Baker Spring, a defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative institute here, says the consensus was grounded in a view that treaties bolstered national security because they preserved US power, including the American nuclear deterrent.
But with the end of the cold war, arms-control advocates came to regard such treaties as a means to attain global disarmament, a "utopian" goal that cannot be achieved and whose pursuit will undermine US preeminence, he says.
The "essential goal" of arms control "is to increase security and stability," says Mr. Spring, a CTBT foe. "If you lower the level of armaments in a way that invites or risks attack, you have essentially defeated the purpose of arms control."
Other experts attribute the collapse of the consensus to the emergence of conservative ideologues in congressional leadership positions, such as Senator Lott and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, the CTBT's chief foe.
These Republicans, these analysts say, represent neoisolationist views that spurn multilateral arms-control treaties as putting the brakes on American power. "There is a large ideological component against any kind of treaty constraints that limit the US," says Mr. Rhinelander. "That is one of the strongest elements of the whole thing."
These conservatives also harbor deep animosity for Clinton, some experts say, and want to avoid giving him any kind of political victory.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society