WASHINGTON -- In a sharp policy shift, the Bush administration is offering to renounce the use of chemical weapons and to destroy all its stockpiles if an international agreement to ban such weapons can be reached.
The proposal was to be presented to the Conference on Disarmament today in Geneva, where it is intended to jumpstart stalled negotiations. Although President Bush made chemical warfare the centerpiece of his disarmament focus for nearly a decade, there has previously been little progress.
The offer stirred considerable excitement among U.S. chemical weapons experts, who said the pledge to never use chemical weapons, even in retaliation, represents a major shift in U.S. policy.
The proposal "can move the world significantly closer to the goal of a world free of chemical weapons," Bush said in a written statement.
Earlier, the president had proposed retaining 2 percent of the nation's poison gases and nerve agents as a hedge against a chemical attack. That approach divided the 39-nation disarmament talks because it would have left the United States with at least 500 tons of chemical munitions, even as other countries were eliminating their supplies.
The 2 percent proposal was "widely unpopular" among others at the Geneva conference, said a senior administration official who was involved in preparation of the new policy. He spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
The official said that the gulf war, which generated fears that U.S. and allied troops would come under a chemical attack for which they may not be prepared, gave "a new urgency and we think a new opportunity" to reaching an international agreement, known as the Chemical Weapons Convention. The goal is the global elimination of chemical weapons.
The "stark events" of the Persian Gulf war "renew and reinforce my conviction, shared by responsible leaders around the world, that chemical weapons must be banned, everywhere in the world," Bush said in his statement.