IN A WORLD of increasingly smart weapons, poison gas is irredeemably dumb. Like an ancient blunderbuss, chemical weapons cannot be counted on to hit what they are aimed at. They are liable to blow up in a user's face. Perhaps worst of all, they are hard to dispose of safely after their possessor has decided they are no longer worth keeping. So it is good that the Bush administration is prepared to destroy the American chemical arsenal early in the next century. The problem now is to formalize the commitment with a treaty.
Bush's record on chemical arms is remarkably spotty. As vice president, he introduced a draft disarmament treaty that negotiators have been poring over since 1984. He also cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate to procure chemical weapons. In 1989, his administration backed away from the treaty provision halting production of new ones. But now he is ready to renounce the use of chemical arms whenever the treaty takes effect -- and to get rid of the entire American chemical stockpile 10 years after that.
If this timetable seems excessively glacial, bear in mind that the first ban on chemical arms dates back to 1925 and the 39-nation Geneva negotiations that resumed [last] week have been plodding on since 1968. With Washington emboldened by Iraq's failure to use chemical weapons in the Persian Gulf war, the parties still must negotiate a compromise on inspections and work out safe disposal procedures. The Bush administration hopes the treaty can be wrapped up by the end of next year. Godspeed.