Chemical weapons ban gets bipartisan push Familiar GOP faces join call to ratify treaty

April 05, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Under pressure of a late April deadline, President Clinton launched yesterday what he promises will be a furious campaign to win Senate ratification of a treaty to 'N eliminate chemical weapons worldwide.

Mindful of the need for Republican votes to approve the treaty, which has languished on Capitol Hill since 1993, Clinton invited a distinguished bipartisan cast of military and civilian leaders to join him yesterday on the South Lawn of the White House.

Those gathered with Clinton under a glorious blue sky included former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations; former Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker of Kansas; former Democratic Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma; and Colin L. Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were joined by an array of other supporters -- lawmakers, diplomats and religious and military leaders.

"The time has come to pass this treaty, as 70 other nations already have done," the president said. "We can give our children something our parents and grandparents never had -- broad protection against the threat of chemical attack."

The treaty will take effect April 29 whether or not the United States ratifies it. But if the Senate fails to approve it by then, the United States would have a vastly diminished role in interpreting its provisions and enforcing it.

Should that happen, Clinton warned, "America will go from leading the world to joining the company of pariah nations that the [treaty] seeks to isolate."

The treaty, formally called the Chemical Weapons Convention, was drafted by the Reagan administration and signed in 1993 by President George Bush. It would ban the manufacture, storage, sale or use of chemical weapons.

But the treaty has engendered skepticism from conservative Republicans in the Senate. Opponents assert that it is not truly verifiable. And because the countries that pose the most grave dangers from chemical weapons -- such "rogue" nations as Libya, Iraq and North Korea -- are unlikely to endorse the treaty, critics say it is largely meaningless.

"It would create a false sense of security that we have actually done something to deal with the proliferation of chemical weapons," North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote last year.

In rebuttal, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said yesterday: "Some people say the treaty is flawed because we cannot assume early ratification and full compliance by outlaw states. This is like saying that we should not pass a law against drug smuggling because we cannot assume full compliance by drug traffickers."

'A good deal'

Supporters point out that the chemical industry's leading trade association favors the treaty, primarily because it requires signatory nations to adhere to strict trade sanctions against companies whose nations do not sign it.

"We have studied this treaty in great detail," said Frederick L. Webber, president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, who called it "a good deal for American industry."

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Webber added that although his industry "does not produce chemical weapons, we do make products with valuable applications in medicine and other uses which can, in the wrong hands, be converted into weapons agents. We believe the Chemical Weapons Convention the best tool available to prevent illegal diversions of our products."

Even so, Clinton said he was taking care not to exaggerate the ability of the signatories to enforce the treaty. "Of course, the treaty is not a panacea," he said.

Those who attended the South Lawn event have agreed to help round up the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate. Albright has drawn the toughest assignment -- Helms. Last month, she met with him in North Carolina and persuaded the senator to hold more committee hearings next week. But Helms signaled yesterday that he was hardly mollified.

"I watched today's White House ceremony with great interest," he said from his home in Raleigh, N.C. "I hope the president will be kind enough to lend me the Rose Garden next week to introduce my team."

67 votes are needed

As a simple political calculation, White House officials fear that if they cannot shepherd the treaty through this month, there is no reason to believe that they could round up enough support any other time.

"We need 67 votes," said David Johnson, an official with the White House National Security Council. "We don't have them yet."

Arguments the treaty's supporters are making as they buttonhole senators include these:

Failure to ratify would raise doubts about America's willingness to lead the international community.

In that case, Baker asserted, "We will throw in our lot with the rogue states which oppose this treaty. We will be sending a clear signal of retreat from international leadership."

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