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U.S.: Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Seems Doomed In Senate

  • Frank Csongos

An international treaty to prohibit testing nuclear weapons is facing virtually certain defeat in the U.S. Senate. President Bill Clinton and his defense secretary, William Cohen, are making last-minute appeals for support. They argue that not ratifying the treaty would indirectly encourage the spread of nuclear weapons. RFE/RL's Frank T. Csongos reports from Washington.

Washington, 7 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Efforts to ratify an international treaty that would ban nuclear weapons testing worldwide appear to be doomed in the U.S. Senate this year.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled upper chamber and their Democratic counterparts both say the accord has little chance of getting the necessary two-thirds majority needed for approval.

The Republicans, who command 55 seats in the 100-seat Senate, say the test ban treaty is unverifiable. The Democrats say rejecting the accord would send a signal to such nations as Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Iraq that the United States is not really interested in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

U.S. President Bill Clinton, himself a Democrat, supports the treaty and has lobbied key senators for its passage.

"I think for the Senate to reject it would send a terrible message. It would say to the whole world, look, America is not going to test, but if you want to test, go right ahead. We're not interested in leading the world toward nonproliferation any more. "

The United States no longer tests nuclear weapons. It relies on improving its nuclear arsenal by sophisticated computer simulation.

"I think it is a very curious position that some of the leaders of the opposite (Republican) party are taking that they don't really want us to start testing again and they know we have the most sophisticated system in the world for maintaining our nuclear stockpile without testing. But they don't want to vote for this treaty even if that says to Pakistan, to India, to China, to Russia, to Iran, to everybody else. (They say) 'You all go on and do whatever you want to do, but we're not going to do it.'"

Clinton also dismissed objections that nations can easily cheat on the treaty by exploding low-level weapons underground.

"On the compliance issue, keep in mind what the reports say: that you cannot with 100 percent certainty detect small nuclear tests everywhere in the world. That's all they say. Our national security people, including all of our people at the Pentagon, say that any test of the magnitude that would present any sort of threat to the United States could, in fact, be detected, number one. Number two, if we don't pass this treaty, such smaller tests will be even more likely to go undetected. Why? Because if the treaty goes into force, we'll have over 300 sophisticated sensors put out in places all across the world, and we'll have the right to on-site inspection. And we will also have the deterrent effect of people being found violating the treaty."

The U.S. Senate Arms Services Committee held a hearing on Wednesday and heard Defense Secretary William Cohen arguing for ratification. In turn, Cohen was peppered with statements from Republican senators saying that the treaty would harm U.S. national security.

Cohen gave a spirited defense of the treaty. "By banning nuclear explosive testing, the treaty removes a key tool that a proliferator would need in order to acquire a high degree of confidence in its nuclear weapons design. And in this way, the treaty can limit the nuclear threat facing the United States and our allies, and our deployed military forces. I'd like to point out it can never prevent proliferation or reduce the current nuclear threat, but it can make it more difficult to develop an advanced new type of nuclear weapon, and thereby we are able to cap the threat. So it's no guarantee, but it certainly is going to make it more difficult, and I believe by making it more difficult, we will have a safer world rather than a less safer one."

Cohen also argued that the test ban treaty discourages other nations from obtaining nuclear weapons and protects U.S. nuclear capabilities.

"So in considering this treaty, I believe there are two fairly straightforward issues: How do we discourage other nations from obtaining nuclear weapons and make it more difficult for those that we fail to discourage? And secondly, how do we protect our existing nuclear capabilities?I believe this treaty offers answers to both. If the Senate rejects the treaty, the proliferation of nuclear weapons is more likely, and it poses a serious challenge to our arms reduction goals. If the Senate lacks confidence in the scientific means to verify the reliability of our nuclear weapons, I guess I would have to ask the question, 'Does it follow then that we should return to a policy of nuclear testing?' And if you advocate that we follow a policy of nuclear testing, I think it's going to be difficult to demand that other nuclear powers or aspirants refrain from engaging in precisely the same conduct."

But the Republican chairman of the Senate panel, John Warner (R-VA), countered by saying that he is concerned that the treaty would weaken U.S. efforts to maintain its nuclear arsenal.

"We've got by far the largest arsenal. It really, in a way, has been an umbrella to protect the world. You and I and everyone in this room know that Soviet aggression on the continent of Europe was deterred those 50 years, when we celebrated the anniversary of NATO, by that arsenal and the trusteeship of successive presidents and successive Congresses. And that's what we've got to maintain."

Senator Strom Thurmond, a veteran Republican, also expressed doubts.

"Treaties do not stop other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons or developing new generations of weapons. While this treaty will tie our hands, other nations will proceed to test in secret. Security for the United States lies in maintaining our credible nuclear deterrent and producing a missile shield to run the other countries' weapons ineffectual against us."

Senate Republican leader Trent Lott said earlier this week the full Senate would vote on the treaty next Tuesday or Wednesday. However, Lott later indicated he would consider postponing the vote.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Wednesday that Clinton would not object to the Senate's delaying the ratification vote for a few months. But he said Clinton opposes putting off the treaty's consideration until the next U.S. president takes office in January 2001, as suggested by some Republicans.