Testing President Bush

Posted: Jul 10, 2001 12:00 AM
(Washington, D.C.): Saturday's New York Times reported that "President Bush has resolved to let the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) languish in the Senate, where its supporters concede they do not have the votes to revive it." If correct, this disclosure represents good news and bad news. The good news is that, as President, George W. Bush is hewing to the same line he took with respect to the CTBT as a candidate for the White House: The treaty's permanent, "zero-yield" ban on all underground nuclear testing is unverifiable and incompatible with American security. A majority of the United States Senate reached the same conclusion in 1999 when it voted to reject ratification of President Clinton's test ban treaty -- the most stunning repudiation of an arms control accord in history. The bad news is that, according to the Times, Mr. Bush has been persuaded by State Department lawyers that "a President cannot withdraw a treaty from the Senate once it has been presented for approval." They evidently assert that "Senate rules require a two-thirds vote to ratify the treaty...or to send the CTBT back to Mr. Bush for disposal." This is ridiculous. The Senate has spoken on this treaty, with seventeen more votes than the 34 needed to block ratification being cast against it. That should be a sufficient basis for Mr. Bush to serve notice that he considers the CTBT to be ineligible for further consideration and effectively - if not, strictly speaking, mechanically -- withdrawn from the Senate's docket. Unfortunately, this is not an academic point. Every Senate Democrat voted for the CTBT, a troubling testament to their caucus' discipline -- even at the expense of national security. All other things being equal, Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden may well be tempted to score political points with their base at Mr. Bush's expense by resuscitating the CTBT. Their calculation could be that, even if the votes are still not there for this defective accord, the Democratic Party can make inroads with moderates and independents if it can tag President Bush as recklessly enamored of nuclear weapons and a serial eviscerator of treaties (along with the Kyoto Protocol and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty). The danger is that Mr. Bush will be further encouraged by such political maneuvering to translate one of his campaign pledges into worrisome presidential direction. During a major foreign policy address at the Citadel and subsequently, the then-Texas Governor declared his willingness to make deep and unilateral reductions in U.S. nuclear forces. During its first six-months in office, the Bush Administration has been actively considering how responsibly to implement that and related proposals. There seems little doubt that the President will indeed shortly unveil a plan that goes well beyond the elimination of the MX intercontinental ballistic missile and the reduction by one-third of the B-1 bomber force unveiled two weeks ago. The trouble is that, the smaller the size of our nuclear arsenal, the more important it becomes that the remaining weapons are safe, reliable and effective as a deterrent. Those currently in the inventory are either at or approaching the end of their design life. Unfortunately, we have no scientifically rigorous and certain way of ensuring the safety and viability of nuclear weapons without at least realistic, low-yield underground explosive tests. What is more, making long-overdue efforts to replace those weapons with nuclear devices appropriate to the 21st Century (for example, capable of holding at risk deep-underground bunkers favored by the Third World dictators who we most worry about deterring in the present era) will, moreover, require some developmental testing. Thus, while the exact size, and strategic implications, of the Bush strategic stockpile can only be guessed at just now, one thing is already clear: If the President fails to make clear that the down-sizing and restructuring of the American strategic deterrent must be accompanied by the maintenance and modernization of those forces that will be retained -- and, of necessity, a resumption of limited underground nuclear testing -- he will be missing the best opportunity we are likely ever to have to explain the need for and to secure popular support of those initiatives. This will, of course, require abandonment of the moratorium on nuclear testing forced upon President Bush the Elder in 1992 and affirmed by his son even as the latter denounced the CTBT. Accordingly, Mr. Bush and his representatives must stop pledging to perpetuate that arrangement as was done, for example, most recently by NATO foreign ministers at their meeting in May in Budapest. Their final communique read, in part, "As long as the CTBT has not entered into force, we urge all states to maintain existing moratoria on nuclear testing." To be sure, this language represents a significant improvement over the previous formulation favored by the Clinton Administration -- namely, "We remain committed to an early entry into force of the CTBT and, in the meanwhile, urge all states to refrain from any acts which would defeat its object and purpose." Still, it is not enough for Mr. Bush to replace his predecessor's efforts to pretend that the Senate had not rejected the CTBT with an open-ended commitment to continue to deny this country a diagnostic and developmental tool essential to the maintenance of the sort of deterrent we need today -- and of which we will likely have even greater in the years ahead. By coupling his decision to reduce the number of nuclear weapons the United States will retain with an announcement that the Nation will resume the testing needed to ensure that its deterrent remains safe, reliable and competent, George W. Bush can secure a two-fer: First, he can take, under the most favorable circumstances imaginable, a step that his adversaries at home and abroad would dearly like to make politically costly for him. And two, he can thereby act constructively to "defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT" -- and thus establish beyond a doubt that America will not be precluded from doing what it must for its national security, and that of others around the world who rely upon our nuclear umbrella.