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An American Tragedy

In rejecting ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Senate willfully plunged a dagger into the heart of U.S. efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The international community, overwhelmingly supportive of the treaty, looked on in shocked disbelief as an American tragedy unfolded, replete with mean-spirited politics, outrageous rhetoric and obsessive fears of diminished nuclear potency and multinational obligations constraining U.S. freedom of action. This calculated and perverse Senate action, the first rejection of a multilateral security agreement since the Versailles Treaty, has severely undercut the credibility of U.S. leadership in efforts to strengthen the non-proliferation regime. The damage will not be easily repaired.

The success of the small group of ultra-conservative hawks, led by Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC), James Inhofe (R-OK) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), in corralling all but four courageous Republicans in lockstep opposition to the CTBT signaled the end of the long-standing bipartisan approach to arms control. The cavalier fashion in which a matter of such importance was rushed to a vote without adequate hearings or debate cast shame on "the world's greatest deliberative body."

In the outrageously truncated schedule of hearings and debate, dictated by Lott in an obvious effort to dispose of the treaty as quickly as possible, Republican senators dismissed administration arguments that the treaty was critical to building international support for the non-proliferation regime and focused their attention on the test ban's impact on the reliability and safety of the U.S. stockpile and the treaty's verifiability. Their oft-repeated assertion that it would not be possible to maintain a credible deterrent without testing, even with a $4.5 billion annual stewardship program, demonstrated that they did not understand the reliability problem, the concept of deterrence or the stewardship program. The notion that the several thousand strategic nuclear warheads of a half dozen different types would all suddenly fail despite monitoring by a highly sophisticated surveillance and replacement program is patently absurd. It was indeed shocking that these senators put their own uninformed judgments above those of the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the four service chiefs, all of whom endorsed the treaty, as did four former JCS chairmen. These are the cautious professionals who have real-life responsibility for the reliability and safety of their forces. In a written statement, the three nuclear laboratory directors also expressed their confidence in guaranteeing the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Republican senators also denounced the treaty as "unverifiable" because of the threshold below which seismic detection of underground tests is not possible—although such testing might be revealed by other means. They dismissed the fact that such small tests, which are not useful for thermonuclear weapons development, do not threaten U.S. security and are not necessary for maintaining the U.S. stockpile. And they could not grasp why U.S. security would be better served by limiting violators to at most a few small-yield tests than by allowing them to conduct unlimited tests at any yield.

By design, the abbreviated schedule prevented negotiation of conditions on the resolution of ratification to respond to possible concerns as was done in the case of the Chemical Weapons Convention. In fact, in rejecting approval of the resolution, the Republicans also rejected six conditions that the Democrats had attached guaranteeing inter alia funding of the stewardship program and obligating the president to exercise the treaty's withdrawal option if testing were found necessary to insure reliability of the stockpile.

President Clinton attempted to blunt the negative impact of the Senate vote by announcing that he would continue to honor the CTBT, which precludes testing, and would seek future Senate approval of ratification. Some Republicans clearly regretted the outcome, 17 having sided with the Democrats in a last-minute effort to defer a vote. But there is now little chance to revisit the treaty during Clinton's administration.

In the final analysis, the Republican-dominated Senate willfully converted a U.S. diplomatic triumph into a repudiation of U.S. international responsibilities. With Republican foreign and security policy in the hands of Helms, Inhofe, Kyl and Lott there is no chance for change unless the overwhelming public support for the treaty is reflected in the electoral process. Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley have made clear their strong support for the CTBT and intention to make it a campaign issue, while all Republican hopefuls have rushed to support the Senate action. The Republican presidential candidate and every Republican senatorial candidate should be held accountable for the American tragedy their party orchestrated.