U.S. arms control agency quietly fights for its life

April 28, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In the annals of bureaucratic warfare, the fight over the future of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency stands out as almost genteel, waged with well-argued memos and so little back-stabbing that hardly anyone pays attention.

But the outcome could have a profound impact on the United States's post-Cold War effort to curb weapons proliferation and safely reduce the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal.

President Clinton is poised to decide the fate of the agency, which was created to advise the president and secretary of state on ways to curb the arms race and negotiate and implement agreements.

Mr. Clinton could "revitalize" it by giving it a greater say in policy-making than in recent years or merge its policy and technical functions into the State Department. A memo outlining his choices is due on National Security Adviser Anthony Lake's desk at the end of this week.

The decision will force Mr. Clinton to weigh how his national security establishment should be organized to cope with varied and tough new disarmament challenges while keeping his pledge to streamline government.

The 32-year-old agency, known as ACDA, has a glittering record of leading successful negotiations that include the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the chemical weapons pact. It remains the government's principal repository of technical expertise in the seemingly arcane field of arms control as well as its institutional memory on arms control matters.

But ACDA, committed to arms reduction, has been battered since its creation by recurrent ideological attacks that have reduced its effectiveness, sidelined its directors and shrunk its influence.

President Ronald Reagan, suspicious of what he saw as its liberal disarmament culture, set out to restrain the agency early in his tenure by naming the conservative Kenneth Adelman as director.

Under President George Bush, the agency simply was overshadowed, with arms-control policy shaped by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who personally conducted the final negotiations on major arms pacts.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ended an era of lengthy and complex arms-control deals negotiated painstakingly over the years by Geneva-based diplomats and an army of specialists.

The new challenges are to halt the further spread of nuclear weapons, particularly to mercurial, isolated states such as North Korea; to safely implement existing accords with the former Soviet republics; to control other weapons of mass destruction and to curb a worldwide conventional arms race.

In a management report last year, State Department officials questioned whether "an independent agency such as ACDA still performs a needed role." Under a reorganization proposed by senior State Department officials, about 100 of ACDA's 250 employees would be folded into two bureaus reporting to the undersecretary for international security affairs, Lynn Davis.

The intent of this plan, besides saving $25 million annually, is to integrate arms control and nonproliferation with other foreign policy goals.

Proponents argue that arms control is not an end in itself but one component in foreign policy. And with a president and his entire administration committed to it, there is no way it would get "buried" as an issue, they say.

But ACDA has influential friends, on Capitol Hill and in the community of arms-control advocates, international lawyers and former negotiators, who have mounted a lobbying effort to save it.

They argue from long experience with the government that unless ACDA is kept as a separate agency, the arms-control viewpoint would not get to the National Security Council and the president with the needed urgency. Rather, they say, it would be subordinated to other, more immediate, foreign-policy priorities.

They also see an inherent conflict in having the same State Department bureau in charge of weapons sales to U.S. allies abroad assigned the arms-control portfolio.

In an odd twist for a bureaucratic battle, both sides largely agree on policy, assigning a top priority to getting North Korea to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program, getting strategic arms accords implemented and moving toward launching congressionally mandated negotiations on a comprehensive test ban.

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