The opiate of the policy-making classes

September 08, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Some good will come of Saddam Hussein's latest misbehavior if it convinces 34 senators to do the right, if uncomfortable, thing by blocking ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Ratification, which will be voted on this week, would be an act of conspicuous unseriousness, deepening the tendency of democracies to disconnect rhetoric from reality.

President Clinton displayed that tendency when he explained the U.S. attacks on Iraq: ''When you abuse your own people or threaten your neighbors you must pay a price.'' But the abuse of a regime's people is not a sufficient reason for U.S. retaliatory actions. And regarding Iraq's neighbors, none feel threatened enough by Mr. Hussein's action, which is confined to Iraqi territory, to publicly endorse the U.S. reaction.

A State Department spokesman said, ''You cannot have agreed-upon rules in the international system flouted by international outlaws.'' But if the rules really were agreed upon, ''the international community'' would be acting like a community defined by shared norms.

There are no agreed-upon rules regarding the improvisation in northern Iraq -- the semi-autonomous zone (the Kurds' ''protected'' area) carved from a nation in the name of the ''international community.'' The U.S. is sensibly using Mr. Hussein's action there as a pretext for measures to degrade Iraq's capacity for aggression southward, toward oil.

Which brings us to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which supposedly would banish the specter of chemical warfare.

In 1988 Mr. Hussein used chemical weapons with ghastly effects against Kurdish villages and Iranian soldiers. Before the Persian Gulf War he produced large stockpiles of mustard gas and nerve agents, and tested artillery shells and long-range missiles as delivery systems for biological as well as chemical agents. During the war he deployed gas-filled artillery and rocket rounds in rear areas.

Inspections in the aftermath of the war have confirmed the common-sense conclusion that it is virtually impossible to prevent a closed society's production of chemical weapons. Experts believe Iraq retains significant chemical-weapons production capabilities and continues to refine chemical and biological weapons.

There is no reason to believe that Saddam Hussein or others like him would be reverent regarding the Chemical Weapons Convention's impressively baroque, but otherwise unimpressive, scheme of inspection and enforcement.

Costs of compliance

Critics of the convention have many sound objections concerning its inspection apparatus, which could be high-handedly intrusive, but only in societies where it would be irrelevant -- in open, lawful societies. There could be high compliance costs for up to 8,000 U.S. companies, that would be required to file reports because of chemicals they manufacture or use. Some trial inspections have convinced some people that U.S. companies might suffer losses of billions of dollars worth of proprietary information through industrial espionage conducted under the inspection apparatus.

The convention would encourage underestimation of the probability of chemical warfare, and perhaps result in inadequate training for such warfare. The United States would be committed to complete chemical-weapons disarmament, even though possession of such weapons deterred even Hitler from waging chemical warfare. But the convention would only negligibly reduce the capacity of secretive societies to prepare for such warfare.

Defenders of the convention note that it was negotiated by two Republican administrations. But of course. Arms control is the opiate of the policy-making class in both parties. And politicians of both parties find irresistible the temptation to pretend that the world can be made safe from evil by means of agreements that only the good will honor. Who sleeps better knowing that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been signed by Iraq and North Korea?

During the Cold War, prudent people heeded this axiom: Real arms control would be impossible until it was unimportant. That is, arms control that enhanced security, rather than served maneuvering for strategic advantages, would be impossible until the Soviet regime changed. And that change would do more than any agreement could to make the world safer.

The historical record is clear: Useful weapons usually get used. The many military uses of chemical weapons -- sowing civilian panic, making key facilities such as airfields unusable, forcing enemy personnel into cumbersome protective gear -- mean that such weapons certainly will be stockpiled and probably will be used.

Sobriety is not in season in election years, but surely 34 senators can reaffirm two principles: International law is not served by the multiplication of unenforceable conventions, and the nation's security rests on power, not parchment.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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