Washington, 7 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate is preparing for what promises to be a heated debate on the floor of the upper chamber over whether or not to ratify an international treaty which would forbid stockpiling, purchase, production, use and development of chemical weapons.
The treaty -- the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) -- has already been signed by more than 160 countries and ratified by 68 -- three more than necessary for it to go into effect on April 29.
The CWC was in part negotiated by the previous administrations of American Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Bush signed the treaty in 1993 shortly before he left office, but in order for it to become law it must be ratified by at least two-thirds of the Senate.
The CWC is strongly supported by U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration, but ratification is uncertain due mostly to opposition from some conservative Republican members of the Senate who believe verification of the treaty's provisions are impossible.
President Clinton emphatically told Congress in his State of the Union address on Tuesday that the Senate must ratify the treaty by April 29 or lose the opportunity to have Americans play a major role in outlawing poison gas from the globe.
If the United States fails to ratify the treaty by April 29, America will be excluded from participating in the enforcement and verification process. American chemical manufacturers will also suffer because they will most likely be banned from certain export markets as a result of the failure of the United States to join the effort.
Opposition to the treaty had been fairly mild in the United States and was headed for a vote in the Senate last fall when former Senator Robert Dole, then the Republican party's candidate for president, suddenly made the treaty into a campaign issue. Dole said he was opposed to it because of verification challenges and urged his colleagues to vote against it.
The abrupt turnabout sent Clinton officials scrambling. Then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher quickly asked that the vote be postponed, fearing a politically-motivated rejection by the Senate amid last minute campaign posturing.
But after his re-election, President Clinton sent a strong message to the Senate that he meant to make CWC a foreign policy priority.
In early January, the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying that Clinton is committed to securing Senate approval for the treaty by the April deadline, so America could be one of the original signatories.
"If the United States is not an original party, it will forfeit its right to make critical decisions about treaty implementation that could have a significant impact on monitoring and enforcement of the treaty's obligations," said the statement.
Clinton then ordered his new team of foreign policy advisors to make the issue a top priority.
The new Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, spent most of her first full week on the job lobbying Senators for ratification of the treaty.
Former U.S. Senator William Cohen, the new Secretary of Defense and the only Republican in Clinton's cabinet, was charged with lobbying for bipartisan support.
But the Clinton administration faces a daunting roadblock in the person of Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms has openly said he will do everything he can to prevent the treaty from being approved, even if that means keeping it stuck in his committee.
Helms outlined his opposition in a January 29 letter to Senate Majority leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) saying that the treaty is fatally flawed because it is impossible to ensure verification.
Moreover, Helms said the Senate should not act on the chemical weapons ban before it focuses on Republican priorities such as reorganizing and shrinking the U.S. foreign affairs bureaucracy; reorganizing the United Nations; having the president submit to the Senate for approval the modifications for the Anti-Ballistic Missle (ABM) and Conventional Forces in Europe Treaties; and legislating mandatory deployment of an anti-missile defense for U.S. territory.
Helms is in a very strong bargaining position. He is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That gives him the power to postpone votes on treaties, or delay approval of Clinton's foreign policy personnel appointments, including ambassadors. Helms has used his influence before. Last year, he delayed votes on a number of nominees for diplomatic posts in order to force the Administration to negotiate with him on State Department reorganization. Political observers see no reason why he won't do it again.
Some political experts say the key to overcoming Helms' objections to the treaty lies with Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), a prominent member of Helm's committee and a strong supporter of the chemical ban, and Lott, whose support for the treaty is weak, at best.
Lugar has been very vocal and enthusiastic in his support for the treaty.
"I strongly urge my colleagues in the Senate to support this important international treaty that would help to suppress the threat of chemical warfare and terrorism," he recently said.
On the other hand, Lott has said he has serious concerns about the treaty. Yet despite his reservations, Lott has already had a series of meetings with Clinton officials about the treaty, and he appointed a 10-member Senate committee to study the question of whether better verification standards can be added to the Convention.
But the Clinton administration was dealt a serious blow this week when a top secret report published in the "Military Intelligence Digest" and dated January 24, was leaked to the Associated Press. The report stated that Russia is producing a new generation of chemical weapons that are quick and easy to make, and are almost impossible to detect by international inspectors.
According to the report, Russia has developed a deadly nerve agent called A-232 which is comprised of easily obtainable industrial and agricultural chemicals. The chemicals are not lethal until they are mixed.
The existence of A-232 itself has been known for years, but the report says that under a top secret program called "Foliant," the Russians have found a way to produce the agent in large quantities quickly and efficiently without it being detected by outside inspectors.
For example, the report says the nerve agent can be easily disguised as a pesticide precursor, and in other cases, soldiers can simply add alcohol to the chemicals to form the deadly agent.
Russia has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, but like the United States, has not yet ratified it.
CIA and Pentagon officials have declined to comment on the report.
Opponents to the ratification of the treaty point to the report as an example of how countries will be able to circumvent the ban.
"Russia, the country that possesses the largest and most sophisticated chemical weaponry in the world, has signaled that it has no intention of abiding by our bilateral agreement to get rid of the chemical weapons stockpile. To the contrary, over the past six years Russia consistently has refused to come clean about the true size of its chemical weapon stockpile and about the status of its binary chemical weapons program," said Helms.
Lugar acknowledges that it will be difficult to prevent the future development of chemical weapons by any nation, including signatories to the treaty. But he says the treaty does have benefits.
"The CWC would make it more difficult and more costly for terrorists to acquire or use chemical weapons," Lugar wrote in a letter to his Senate colleagues last September. "The CWC will provide access to international declaration and inspection information, and will strengthen the intelligence links between the U.S. and the international community that will help us detect and prevent chemical attacks."
Cohen agrees. "It's far better ... that we have some of our people in the inspection teams to conduct these inspections in various countries than we have no participation at all," he says.