An Arms Control Association Press Conference
What happened in the U.S. Senate over the last two weeks is unprecedented in my 27 years experience working around Capitol Hill. An important international issue, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, became a purely partisan fight and led to an almost straight party-line vote. You've heard the old cliché "politics stops at the water's edge"; this time politics washed over the entire continental shelf.
What was particularly significant was the fact that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott dealt with the test ban treaty the way he has domestic issues—budget questions, gun control, patient's bill of rights, minimum wage. He worked hard to unite his colleagues against a Democratic president and cracked the whip to make sure enough of his colleagues went along to deny the treaty the two-thirds majority. Thus, for Senate Republicans, critical non-proliferation became just another domestic political issue. International political implications be damned, it was politics full speed ahead.
The root cause of what happened, I believe, is that the Republicans so distrust and so despise President Clinton that they're quite willing to inflict damage to Bill Clinton even if it means damage to U.S. national security. As I watched the maneuvering over the last couple of weeks, it became clear to me that the debate during that time was at least three parts politics for every one part substance.
A week ago it became clear the votes simply were not there for this test ban treaty. And that trend became especially true when we saw the positions announced by such key internationalist Republicans as Richard Lugar of Indiana, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, John Warner of Virginia, who all opposed the treaty. And then last evening, they were joined by another key internationalist, Ted Stevens of Alaska. All four senators had supported the Chemical Weapons Convention [CWC]. All four senators, along with many of their colleagues from both parties, preferred to delay consideration of the treaty last night rather than to reject it outright.
However, last-minute negotiations to win that delay floundered when Majority Leader Lott, who I should call from now on "Henry Cabot Lott," was unable or unwilling to override the small band of extremists, the new isolationists in the Republican Party: the Helmses, the Kyls, the Inhofes. The face of the Republican Party is now the face of Jesse Helms, who took great partisan delight last night right before the vote in taunting the president and couldn't resist bringing up Monica Lewinsky.
As we look at the wreckage of the past two weeks, it is useful to focus on one of the old maxims of arms control, and that is that a Republican president has a much easier time gaining a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate than a Democratic president. Last evening, of course, the test ban treaty failed. It took more than four years for President Clinton to get the Chemical Weapons Convention through the Senate, including one postponement right before the 1996 presidential election—four years before Clinton could win a 74-26 majority for a treaty that President Bush had negotiated and signed.
I'm confident that if President Bush had been re-elected in 1992, the CWC would have sailed through the U.S. Senate. START II was approved a little bit more easily in 1996, but it was still delayed for a considerable period of time by another one of Jesse Helms' sit-down strikes. The previous Democratic president similarly had problems with arms control treaties, and never could win approval of the SALT II agreement. On the other hand, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush had a much easier time in dealing with the Senate on arms control issues.
Is President Clinton crippled for the remainder of his 15 months in office? I would argue no. The president and the Democratic Party still are effective players on many issues, including the ongoing budget negotiations, patient's bill of rights and gun control. And there is, moreover, no reason why Bill Clinton can't be successful on a number of foreign policy issues as he tries to help secure a Middle East peace settlement, work for a final settlement in Ireland or improve relations with China. But I think you can forget any international agreement requiring a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate over the next 15 months.
Technically, the test ban treaty remains at the desk of the Senate and could be brought back at any time. But in reality, I think it will take a new president—a Gore, a Bradley, a Bush, a McCain—to resurrect the treaty in 2001. And in fact, if George W. Bush is elected, I think the treaty, if he is so inclined, could easily sail through the U.S. Senate.
The question that I and others will focus on in the next weeks is whether Republican senators who voted "no" last evening can be made to pay a political price for opposing the wishes of 80 percent of their constituents and joining with the new isolationists. I am referring to people like Olympia Snowe of Maine, Spencer Abraham of Michigan and Conrad Burns of Montana. Will they be made to pay a price? I can't answer that question, but we will certainly try to make them pay that price in the coming weeks and months before the 2000 election.
Questions & Answers:
Question:Are some of the opponents of the treaty taking their position because they are afraid that this is simply a step towards disarmament, which they consider an unacceptable goal?
Steinbruner:That's a little bit like somebody standing in Bayonne, New Jersey and taking a few steps west and starting to worry about falling into the Pacific Ocean. It's an absurd statement that a ban on additional testing in the presence of eight validated test designs and thousands of weapons is going to be a direct route to unilateral disarmament. People in this country have the right to say anything they want, but there is an issue as to which arguments the political system will choose to take seriously. The argument that there is an immediate danger of unilateral disarmament is, quite simply, ridiculous.
Isaacs:Though it may be a ridiculous point of view, it's clearly shared by people like Helms, Inhofe, Kyl and Bob Smith of New Hampshire. I don't believe, however, that that point of view is shared by anywhere near the majority of the Republican Party, but at this point, the right wing is leading the Republican Party. Majority Leader Lott chose to go along with those senators and that point of view rather than to go with the internationalist wing of the party, which I believe is much larger, including the Warners, the Domenicis, the Stevenses.
There are also Republicans outside the Senate, like Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger and others, who may have had reservations about the treaty, but who would have much preferred a postponement to the outright defeat last night. So what you're describing is a point of view held by very few people, but those people control the Republican Party today.
Keeny:If one accepts this as a legitimate concern, particularly in the case of the comprehensive test ban, which does not oblige the United States to do anything to eliminate or even reduce its nuclear weapons, you are essentially accepting a proposition that any arms control is a bad thing because it can lead to more arms control. That argument leads to the conclusion that we should not only not have any further efforts in arms control, but should abolish the constraints that have already been agreed upon. I cannot believe that in an extended debate that would be the position of the majority of even the present Republican senators. It certainly is not the attitude of the American people.
Question:Do you think it would be useful to follow the advice of some senators who believe the treaty fatally flawed and attempt to renegotiate the treaty with a finite, say 10-year, duration and a threshold below which testing would be permitted?
Keeny:I think that is a totally impractical proposal because to renegotiate this multilateral treaty with fundamental changes of that sort would not be accepted and would underscore the unilateral privilege of the nuclear-weapon states to continue testing. Moreover, I think it would also be opposed by the same group in the Republican Party that has opposed the present CTBT so vehemently. If such a watered-down treaty had somehow come to pass, it would still validate the process of constraining testing, which is precisely what the opponents don't want. One of the most alarming aspects of the debate was the number of people who not only called for testing for reliability and safety reasons, but also said we needed to test to improve, modify and upgrade our nuclear capabilities for new and extended future capabilities. These people are not interested in a threshold test ban even for a limited period. The rest of the world would see a fixed-period treaty as a U.S. maneuver to organize a new test series while they fell further behind.
Graham:A threshold test ban, of course, is totally non-negotiable. There is no chance of even getting in the door with that. With respect to making CTBT a treaty of limited duration, which was our position for a while early in the negotiations—to have a special 10-year withdrawal—I think that might be negotiable, at a price. The non-aligned, non-nuclear-weapon states would say, "Fine. We'll make it a 10-year CTBT as long as we make NPT a 10-year treaty." That would be their counter. In fact, that was their counter at that time, and that solution would be piling disaster on disaster. I think that it's very important to keep beating the drums for ratification of the CTBT, but as it was negotiated.
Question:Why was President Clinton, as a deft political operator, not able to be more successful in managing this affair with Congress.
Isaacs:Since the president was elected in 1992, his first interest and love has always been domestic issues: welfare reform, balanced budget, minimum wage and other issues. Foreign policy has generally been a second thought. Therefore, his greatest amount of time and effort went into his work on various domestic issues, and issues like the test ban treaty and many other international issues were always his second priority. So the deftness that you describe—and which has not always been there even on domestic issues—has been more often than not absent on foreign policy issues in part because that's not where the president's interests and attentions were focused.
The president went pretty far in the last few days to move toward the Republican position by agreeing to ask the Senate not to consider the treaty. But he was not willing to go to the point of agreeing not to ask the Senate to consider the test ban treaty before he leaves office, feeling that such an ironclad commitment would undermine even more the credibility of our non-proliferation policies.
So the two sides came close to an agreement, but again, the Senate hardliners—the Kyls, the Helmses, the Inhofes—simply did not want to agree to withdraw. They wanted a vote to kill the treaty.
Question:But why did the Clinton administration not anticipate problems ahead of time and take much earlier action to facilitate support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the Senate?
Isaacs:Well, to go back a little bit, a number of Democrats—and certainly arms control organizations—had been pressing for a vote on the test ban treaty for years. Several senators took a particularly active lead to press Lott and Helms for hearings and a date certain for a vote. And that was the strategy agreed to by the administration, by key Democratic senators and by our organizations. But I would have to say, in a misjudgment on all our parts, no one anticipated the issue would become so partisan so quickly. No one thought that virtually every Republican would oppose a major international treaty. As has been pointed out, that has not happened since the Treaty of Versailles. And no one thought when the agreement to have a vote was made about two-and-a-half weeks ago that we would not win the Warners, the Domenicis, the Lugars. So I have to concede that there were misjudgments all around on that.
Question:Was it better to have the Senate vote up or down, or would it have been better to have a deferral to the indefinite future and no action now?
Isaacs:I'd argue that postponement leaves ambiguity. Ambiguity is always a venue in which governments, politicians and leaders can operate for months and years, as opposed to the hard rejection last night that puts an apparent end to the test ban treaty prospects, at least for the immediate future. The postponement was favored by almost all. However, if you wish the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to be a political issue, if you want to see if Republicans that oppose the treaty lose votes in the 2000 election, then a vote might be better than postponement.
Graham:I think that internationally a decision to postpone without a firm date for a vote, given all the negativism that surrounds this issue, would be seen as tantamount to rejection. I don't think that what happened last night in terms of the international reaction will make things much worse than they already were, and they already were very bad.
If the decision had been to postpone it to a specific date in February or March, that's different. But that would not have been seen as a rejection. And perhaps, just perhaps, a decision to postpone it but to hold extensive hearings next year—thereby indicating the treaty was still very much alive—might have been a sufficiently positive move toward eventual ratification that some of the negative international effects could have been avoided. And that was a possible compromise that was being considered. But I think between indefinite postponement and rejection, given all the negativism, there's not much difference.
Keeny:Deferral with no date set, which would essentially take the whole matter off the table, would seem to imply presidential agreement with the action that had taken place. So while I think the immediate shock effect of rejection is worse than deferral would have been, it does have the advantage that the president has now come out with an extremely strong statement that it's his intention to continue to honor the treaty, to continue to press for its ratification, and the Senate Democrats have taken a very strong position on their intention to keep this issue before the body at every possible opportunity. Given the unfortunate way it has become a central partisan issue, we are in the position that you really have to take the issue to the American people to have any prospects of reversing this in the foreseeable future.
Question:You've all said that the Republicans are trying to take aim at the arms control regime in a larger way. What are the elements of that agenda and what can we expect to see next?
Graham:Well, first, I would say that next on the agenda would be the ABM Treaty. And, of course, if the ABM Treaty is in some way eliminated or severely crippled, then that will probably eliminate the START process also. So I would think those would be the next items on such an agenda.
Question:If the president and the administration really had time to campaign for the CTBT, could they had gotten the two-thirds majority that they got for the Chemical Weapons Convention?
Graham:I think it's conceivable that if the administration had had the opportunity to have an extensive set of hearings in the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Intelligence Committees, extending over several months, then, yes, I think there might have been a chance to gain ratification. But that possibility was foreclosed by the way the treaty was handled by the Senate.
Isaacs:We certainly felt that, given sufficient time, the president, who has the bully pulpit, could have roused public opinion and worked with key Republicans to produce a two-thirds majority. And that meant, I think, at least a period of six weeks or so from September 30, when they made this unanimous consent agreement, or an agreement to vote sometime next year. In the short time frame in which we and the administration operated, things jelled so quickly with the Republicans—with almost all the Republicans—against the treaty, it was impossible to change that.
Now if the Republicans had been determined to unite against the treaty no matter what, no matter if the vote were in 10 days or 10 weeks or 10 months, then it's hard to see how the treaty would have passed anyway. But again, I think Lott was able to operate on a short time frame when the public wasn't paying that much attention. But if, over a longer period of time, the president could mount that public campaign, I think those views could have been overridden.
Question:What can be done to minimize the negative impact of this Senate action, and what are the prospects that this issue will, in fact, become a significant issue in the presidential campaign?
Steinbruner:I think that the effect of this decisive rejection is to remand the issue to the American political system as a whole. And the only way to have an immediate alleviating effect is to generate some demonstration of majority sentiment that is believable to the rest of the world.
The Republicans have guaranteed that this will now be an election issue. Gore was immediate in his reaction to say that he would immediately resubmit the treaty as a fundamental issue, and George W. Bush opposed the treaty but said he supports the moratorium on testing. So there will be a political debate about this.
My own feeling is that that is a good thing. Let's hope it works. The American people, you would have to say, have gone to sleep on this question. They don't think that nuclear weapons are an imminent danger today. That is not a realistic judgment. Nobody likes to think about this. So the question is, will they care to pay enough attention to bring the majority sentiment to bear, or will the intense minority rule the day?
That is always a problem in this political system and an open question. But the only way to really have an immediate reassuring effect on the rest of the world is for the American political system as a whole, through public discussion, to demonstrate that it does, in fact, support the treaty and will eventually ratify it.