A dangerous game on arms control Treaty to reduce nuclear warheads is being held back

November 19, 1995|By Flora Lewis

PARIS -- AMERICANS used to say, "Politics stops at the water's edge."

That meant both "Don't carry on your home fights abroad" and "Don't mess up foreign policy with your personal politics."

Of course the injunctions were violated on occasion.

There was a time when all presidential candidates felt their campaign tours had to include the "three I's" -- Ireland, Italy and Israel -- to please local constituents sensitive to those countries.

And naturally, foreign affairs is a valid political issue.

But the political game is being played now in an unacceptable, even dangerous, way that makes a trivial plaything of serious foreign-policy questions, to the detriment of America's national interest.

It's not only the opposite of productive bipartisanship. It reduces vital national goals to "hostages in guerrilla political warfare," in the words of Spurgeon Keeny Jr., president of the Arms Control Association.

The most egregious player is Sen. Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, long an irritating nuisance to the State Department, now becoming a menace.

Sen. Bob Dole has also indulged, both in pushing to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and trying to lift unilaterally the United Nations arms embargo on Bosnia. It is time for the U.S. Senate to restore some dignity and sense of responsibility.

The most important of many issues at stake is the START II treaty. It was signed by President George Bush and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in January 1993, and has broad bipartisan support -- even from Mr. Helms.

It provides for the dismantling of about 12,000 nuclear weapons, half each from Russia and the United States. But at a time when much of the world is furious about French nuclear tests, scarcely anyone has noticed that these weapons remain in the arsenals because the treaty hasn't been ratified.

Mr. Helms refuses to call a meeting of his Foreign Affairs Committee to send the treaty to a floor vote because of his feud with the State Department, in which he's trying to force an unwise reorganization. He's also holding up a crucial convention banning types of chemical warfare and stalling a couple of dozen ambassadorial appointments.

This isn't the first time for a peeve or a whim he has abused his powers under Senate rules, but now he is really going too far.

The START treaty is urgent because the Russian Duma won't do anything about it before the United States does. After Duma elections next month, there's no telling whether Russia's new legislature, likely to be more nationalistic, will accept it at all. Loss of the treaty would really be setting the nuclear clock back closer to danger.

Bipartisanship's history

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made bipartisan foreign policy a real achievement after the United States entered World War II.

President Harry Truman advanced it, always taking care to include leading majority and minority figures from both houses of Congress in U.S. delegations to important negotiating conferences.

The custom was lost in the past generation. It should be re-established.

It is the key to giving American policy the sturdy credibility it needs in dealing with other countries.

But on START, action is needed immediately. It would be a wise and fitting service for Sen. Sam Nunn, before his planned retirement, to take the floor and demand the treaty be put to a vote, perhaps together with one of his frequent Republican partners, Sen. John Warner or Sen. Richard Lugar.

There is even a good case for changing the rules in order to put a stop to Mr. Helms' brand of irrelevant blockage when major matters are pending. Nations and statesmen with whom the United States makes agreements it wants and needs can't be expected to put up with waiting on an individual senator's pet gripe, nor even to fathom what it may or may not have to do with American policy intentions.

Many countries signed the chemical warfare treaty but are waiting for the United States to act before ratifying.

Although only the United States and Russia are parties to START, making the promise of nuclear disarmament a fact is in everybody's interest.

Friends in need

It would be perfectly reasonable and proper for America's friends -- say Britain, France, Germany, Canada and Japan -- to raise their voices and call on Washington to move swiftly before the treaty fails in the uncertain Moscow environment.

The situation is so absurd it is hard to believe. But those 12,000 unneeded warheads are real.

When START II was signed, there was also a promise of moving on to negotiate further mutual reductions, which would set a new climate for the other nuclear powers, including France, and help prevent proliferation. That promise is in abeyance too.

The irony is that there aren't even any votes to be won in this kind of political shell game. It's going on behind the public's back.

Here's something worth protesting.

Flora Lewis is the former foreign-affairs columnist for the New York Times.

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