The odd couple Helms and Albright: Friendship could produce a chemical weapons ban and much more.

March 29, 1997

RIGHT OUT IN PUBLIC, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms are celebrating an extraordinary friendship that may produce its first payoff in Senate ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention before an April 29 deadline. If this proves to be the case, it will be a $$ courtly gesture on the part of the Republican that, in the Washington way of things, requires more of a payback that a kiss and a hug from the nation's top diplomat.

High on the Helms agenda: (1) reorganization of the State Department and related agencies, a prospect on which Ms Albright has kept an open mind; (2) reform of a United Nations bureaucracy Ms. Albright frequently criticized when she was U.N. ambassador, and (3) development of a missile defense system, a project that advanced at the Clinton-Yeltsin summit.

But first on the list is the pending ban on chemical weapons, a fiercely lobbied issue negotiated by President Bush, opposed by three former Republican secretaries of defense and given only lackluster support so far by President Clinton. Mr. Helms, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, still considers the pact "dumb and dangerous" because compliance cannot be verified definitively. Nevertheless, after long negotiations with Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking Democrat on his committee, he opened the way to a deal.

"There will be no problem with it if we can continue to negotiate as we have in the last few days," he said as he escorted Ms. Albright on a tour Tuesday of North Carolina. "If both sides sit down and be realistic about it, there's a very good chance there could be a treaty."

Probably Mr. Helms' price for his acquiescence to a Senate vote before the deadline will be the adoption of some stiff reservations that will not prevent the United States from being a big player in implementing the pact. It has been signed by 160 nations, with Libya, Syria, Iraq and North Korea as key exceptions.

Ms. Albright, in a speech at the University of North Carolina, said the treaty would provide "strong and effective tools" for enforcing the international standard that it is wrong to build or possess such "terrible" weapons.

When asked what is her toughest negotiation assignment as secretary of state, she said: "Jesse Helms." He smiled and gave a thumbs up. Such personal relationships are often pivotal in the incestuous world of Washington. If the Helms-Albright love affair continues, it will be a big help in American foreign affairs.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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