Bush Has Compelling Reasons to Pursue Chemical-Weapons Pact

<i> Elisa D. Harris, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is a Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Foundation fellow in international peace and security studies</i>

On numerous occasions throughout last year’s presidential campaign, Vice President George Bush promised voters that a treaty banning chemical weapons would be one of the highest priorities of his Administration.

This intention to work actively on behalf of a chemical-weapons ban has become a source of concern to arms-control opponents and proponents alike. The former question the “verifiability” of a chemical-weapons treaty while the latter fear that it may take precedence over a treaty limiting strategic nuclear arms. Although it will not be easy to reach final agreement on the terms under which all chemical weapons can be eliminated, domestic as well as international realities make it imperative that such a treaty be at the top of the Bush Administration’s arms-control agenda.

The President-elect’s personal interest in banning chemical weapons is partly explained by his own recent involvement with the issue. In April, 1984, Bush introduced a chemical-weapons treaty draft in Geneva on behalf of the United States. This is probably one of the few Reagan Administration foreign-policy efforts that bears the vice president’s fingerprints. Bush also cast three tie-breaking votes in the Senate in favor of the Pentagon’s program to produce new chemical weapons. Because his first vote in support of the so-called binary-weapons program prompted a disapproving phone call from the vice president’s mother, Dorothy Bush, President Reagan himself agreed to call the elder Bush to explain her son’s second vote. A successful outcome in Geneva therefore would not only be a personal triumph for the President-elect but would also vindicate his earlier votes on binary weapons.

Over and above these personal reasons, domestic and international problems provide other, more compelling, reasons to pursue a ban on chemical weapons. Here at home, Congress is showing more and more reluctance to continue funding the binary-weapons program. Doubts about the technical effectiveness of one of the proposed systems, the Bigeye bomb, as well as more general budgetary restraints resulted in deep cuts in the binary program in the current fiscal year.


If, as seems likely, these technical and budgetary concerns remain, Congress will almost certainly impose further limits on the production of binary artillery shells, and will refuse to provide additional funds for the development and procurement of other binary systems. Under these circumstances, even the most ardent binary enthusiasts are likely to support the elimination of both American and Soviet chemical-weapons stocks as part of a larger treaty on chemical disarmament.

Two international developments add further urgency to the efforts to ban chemical weapons. Under an agreement reached by Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl in May, 1986, U.S. chemical weapons currently stored in West Germany are to be removed by 1992. This agreement enjoys widespread support in West Germany, in part because civilians there would suffer disproportionately if such weapons were ever used in a Central European war.

However, influential elements in both Congress and the Pentagon believe that without the U.S. stocks of chemical weapons in West Germany the Atlantic alliance will be severely weakened in its ability to deter Soviet chemical use. As the 1992 deadline draws nearer, the United States may be forced to choose between trying to delay or prevent implementation of the Reagan-Kohl agreement, thus precipitating a crisis in U.S.-West German relations, and carrying out an act of unilateral chemical disarmament. Only by agreeing to eliminate all chemical weapons will the United States be able to avoid this Hobbesian choice.

Finally, and most important, a ban on chemical weapons is essential to halting their proliferation in the developing world. For many years the only known members of the chemical club were the United States, the Soviet Union and France. This situation changed abruptly in 1984, when U.N. investigators confirmed Iranian claims of Iraqi chemical use in the Persian Gulf war. As many as a dozen other Third World countries, including Libya, reportedly either possess chemical weapons or are trying to acquire them. Persuading these countries to forgo what has often been termed the “poor man’s atomic bomb” will not be easy. Yet without a global chemical-weapons ban the proliferation of these weapons will almost certainly continue.

U.S. security as well as international security more generally would be well served by an agreement eliminating chemical weapons on a global scale. Bush recognizes this simple fact, and has committed himself to achieving this goal. No one need fear that he will sign a “bad” chemical-weapons treaty. Nor should there be concern about such a treaty detracting from efforts to reduce strategic nuclear arms. The real worry is that efforts to achieve a ban on chemical weapons will be impeded by those who fail to understand the domestic and international realities that the next President will face.