For decades after the devastating poison gas battles of World War I, U.S. military commanders relied on an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of chemical weapons to deter potential adversaries from using gas against American troops.
In recent years, the Defense Department concluded that it no longer needed chemical weapons to deter attacks because conventional U.S. firepower--backed up, if necessary, by a nuclear arsenal--was deterrent enough.
The Senate is now days away from a vote on whether to ratify an international treaty banning chemical weapons, and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sought to drum up support Sunday for ratification.
"We have the capability of wreaking tremendous destruction on any country that would direct their chemical weapons against our troops," Cohen said. He asserted that Iraq did not use chemical arms during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, although it possessed a potent arsenal, because it was afraid to.
On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), saying he has not decided how he will vote Thursday, called the outcome "too close to call." Treaty supporters and opponents alike agree that Lott has it in his power to tip the balance in either direction as senators follow his lead.
The treaty's formidable opponents include former defense secretaries James R. Schlesinger, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Caspar W. Weinberger and Dick Cheney, who argue that compliance with the pact would be unverifiable and unenforceable and that this would damage U.S. security.
Unlike in most earlier arms control debates, the Pentagon is not arguing that it has any use for the class of weapons to be banned. Under legislation passed in 1985, the Defense Department is required to get rid of its entire stockpile of chemical weapons by 2004. At the time the law was passed, the Pentagon intended to develop a new generation of chemical weapons, but those plans were dropped in 1991.
Military strategists--including Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Colin L. Powell, his predecessor--say that the use of chemical weapons is a military card that the United States would never play, not because of moral considerations but because it has better cards.
Thus, Albright and Cohen argued Sunday, the United States has nothing to lose by ratifying the treaty, which was proposed by former President Reagan and signed by former President Bush.
"We make laws against drug smugglers because we want to prevent drug smuggling," Albright said in a joint appearance with Cohen on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press." "It doesn't mean that we catch all the drug smugglers, but we at least make the rules and do what we can to catch as many people as we can.
"That is what this is about, and it is tightening the noose on those countries that continue to be interested in chemical weapons who are not signatories and making a very tight, international rules system so that chemical weapons cannot be used or spread."
Perhaps equally important to military strategists, chemical arms are unpredictable and dangerous to the forces that use them. An unexpected change in wind can turn gas weapons against the users, who must wear bulky and uncomfortable protective clothing that interferes with their ability to fight and gas masks that restrict breathing.
The treaty's opponents were not silent Sunday. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said the treaty would lull the world into a false sense of security.
The Clinton administration, he said, is "leading us into a situation where we're not going to take the kind of steps that we should to rid the world of the weapons because a treaty would have been signed. The treaty is not verifiable. It doesn't cover most of the countries it needs to cover, and in the end, because of some of its provisions, it would actually be worse than nothing."
Schlesinger, who appeared with Kyl on "Fox News Sunday," said the U.S. government would balk at enforcing the treaty against probable violators such as Russia, China and Israel because other considerations would outweigh concerns about chemical weapons.
"It is a mockery of the arms control process to sign on to a treaty that is not enforceable," he said.
Regardless of Thursday's Senate vote, the treaty will take effect April 29 because 70 countries, five more than the required 65, have already ratified it.
The pact will sharply curtail the purchase of chemicals by countries that ratify the treaty from countries that have not. For that reason, the Chemical Manufacturers Assn. supports the treaty, arguing that failure to ratify it would severely limit U.S. chemical exports.
Iraq and Libya are not among the 161 countries that have signed the treaty. Iran, China and Russia, like the United States, have signed but not yet ratified it.
Albright said U.S. ratification would make it more likely that the Russian parliament would approve the treaty and that U.S. rejection would "give cover" to Russian ultranationalists who oppose it.