Clinton's juvenile bromides on nuclear reality

June 07, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- In the meadow of the president's mind, in the untended portion where foreign policy thoughts sprout randomly, this flower recently bloomed concerning the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests: "I cannot believe that we are about to start the 21st century by having the Indian subcontinent repeat the worst mistakes of the 20th century."

What mistakes did he mean? Having nuclear weapons? Were it not for them, scores of thousands of Americans would have died in 1945 ending the fighting in the Pacific. And nuclear weapons were indispensable ingredients of the containment of the Soviet Union and its enormous conventional forces.

Perhaps the president meant that arms competitions were the "mistakes." But that thought does not rise to the level of adult commentary on the real historical contingencies and choices of nations.

This president's utterances on foreign policy often are audible chaff, and not even his glandular activities are as embarrassing as his sub-sophomoric pronouncement to India and Pakistan that "two wrongs don't make a right." That bromide was offered to nations weighing what they consider questions of national life and death.

U.S. policy regarding such tests has been put on automatic pilot by Congress' itch to micromanage and to mandate cathartic gestures, so the United States will now evenhandedly punish with economic sanctions India for its provocation and Pakistan for responding to it. Because India is stronger economically, the sanctions will be disproportionately injurious to Pakistan.

Sanctions and superstitions

India has an enormous advantage over Pakistan in conventional military forces. It has the world's fourth largest military establishment, although China's army is three times larger than India's. That is one reason Pakistan believes it needs nuclear weapons. Economic sanctions will further weaken Pakistan's ability to rely on nonnuclear means of defense.

This should be a moment for Republicans to reassert their interest in national security issues, one of the few areas in which the public still regards them as more reassuring than Democrats. But the Republican who could be particularly exemplary, isn't. Arizona Sen. John McCain says the first thing to do is impose "sanctions which hurt" and the second is "to get agreements that they will not test again."

So, automatic sanctions having failed to deter either nation, Washington's attention turns, robotically, to an even more futile ritual -- the superstition of arms control, specifically the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States signed in 1996, but which the Senate has prudently not ratified. The designation "superstition" fits because the faith of believers in arms control is more than impervious to evidence; their faith is strengthened even by evidence that actually refutes it.

Far from demonstrating the urgency of ratification, India's and Pakistan's tests demonstrate the CTBT's irrelevance. India had not tested since 1974. Pakistan evidently had never tested. Yet both had sufficient stockpiles to perform multiple tests. So the tests did not create new sabers, they were the rattling of sabers known to have existed for years. Indeed, in 1990, when fighting in the disputed territory of Kashmir coincided with Indian military exercises, the Bush administration assumed that both Pakistan and India had built weapons with their nuclear technologies and worried about a possible nuclear exchange.

Safer world, weaker America

The nonproliferation treaty authorizes international inspections only at sites declared to be nuclear facilities. Nations have been known to fib. The CTBT sets such a low-yield standard of what constitutes a test of a nuclear device, verification is impossible.

Various of the president's policies, whether shaped by corruption, incompetence or naivete, have enabled China to increase the lethality of its ICBMs. The president and his party are committed to keeping America vulnerable to such weapons: 41 senators, all Democrats, have filibustered legislation sponsored by Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, declaring it U.S. policy "to deploy effective antimissile defenses of the territory of the United States as soon as technologically possible."

Instead, the administration would defend the nation with parchment -- gestures such as the CTBT, which is a distillation of liberalism's foreign policy of let's pretend. Let's pretend that if we forever forswear tests, other nations' admiration will move them to emulation. Diagnostic tests are indispensable for maintaining the safety and reliability of the aging U.S. deterrent inventory. So the CTBT is a recipe for slow-motion denuclearization. But let's pretend that if we become weaker, other nations will not want to become stronger.

Seeking a safer world by means of a weaker America, and seeking to make America safe behind the parchment walls of arms control agreements, is to start the 21st century by repeating the worst fallacies of the 20th century.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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