Nevadan Sees through the Smoke and Mirrors: The Chemical Weapons Convention

By Robert C. Tauber


It was a pathetic sight watching Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of Defense William Cohen defend the need for ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty before millions of viewers recently on Meet the Press. The most compelling argument either one of them could muster was, "It’s better than no treaty and the U.S. brokered it."

In keeping with the Clintonesque "100 Nobel prize winners and 89 leading experts endorse it" argument, treaty supporters also marshaled retired General Norman Schwarzkopf and a bevy of other distinguished four-star generals to sign a letter to President Clinton supporting the treaty, saying that it will reduce the likelihood that U.S. troops will face chemical weapons and that it therefore serves our national interests.

Even our own Senator Harry Reid recently took a few moments away from handing out six years’ worth of damage-control pork in preparation for his 1998 re-election bid to say on the Senate floor "me too" by parroting the words of other senators speaking before him in support of the treaty.

What General Schwarzkopf and his esteemed colleagues wrote may be true in an ideal world. But with all due respect, their letter should have stopped after saying that chemical weapons are of limited utility and should be destroyed. Perhaps U.S. troops will be safer from chemical attack as a result of this treaty if our adversary is a well-intentioned signatory such as Australia, but it is wishful thinking to believe that our troops will be any safer against any of our real enemies.

You see, this treaty has more to do with statecraft than it does about military operational arts. Only General Douglas MacArthur comes to mind as having had the unique ability to implement decisive military strategy and also shape the affairs of state.

What becomes apparent upon critical review is the fact that the Chemical Weapons Convention is a treaty whose integrity is based solely upon good intentions. When I was a scientific and technical intelligence analyst employed by the Department of Defense during the early 1980s, the division in which I worked provided support to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). Because good intentions were not an assumed proviso in the START negotiations with the Soviets, the intelligence community was constantly focusing on two considerations: Our ability to assure genuine treaty compliance verification and making sure that Soviet concessions weren’t based upon the relinquishment of capabilities which to them were already obsolete.

On the first point, this treaty is neither genuinely verifiable nor is it comprehensive in scope. The extent of declaration of prohibited chemical stockpiles and production facilities for each signatory country is voluntary. Moreover, participating countries may set the terms of facility inspections, thereby allowing for diversion from the covert production of chemical weapons. What this treaty really allows is the right to have an argument.

On the second point, the Wall Street Journal recently revealed that the Russians have already developed a chemical weapon compound called A-232 that is a highly lethal nerve agent not listed in the treaty’s schedule of prohibited agents. It seems that even under their new regime old habits die hard.

In her Meet the Press interview, Secretary Albright spoke about the necessity of ratification in order to ensure our role as an international leader. President Clinton has said much the same thing. But successful world-class leadership is composed of three necessary components: strategic vision, flawless tactical execution, and the ability to administer that which is attained. This treaty is a fine example of a technocrat’s-eye view of foreign policy but is sorely lacking in the three essential elements of real world preeminence.

Strategically, it was unrealistic to think that we could create a suitable instrument to rid the world of chemical weapons. One need only look to the 1925 Geneva Convention and observe that it was not enforced in the Iran/Iraq war as proof. These weapons were used and the world stood by and did nothing. The only effective deterrent against the use of chemical weapons is the threat of overwhelming retaliation.

This is what kept Hitler and Saddam Hussein from using them against the U.S. Moreover, if verification inspections and sanctions truly are effective they would have worked in Iraq. But today Saddam still thumbs his nose at the rest of the world while U.N. inspection teams and U.N. sanctions continue to have little real impact in reducing the Iraqi chemical weapons threat. Saddam isn’t one who is predisposed toward good intentions.

As for tactical implementation, this treaty is limited in its ability to be enforced. Punishment for non-compliance must be meted out via the treaty Organization’s bureaucracy. To begin with the Organization’s Executive Council makes a recommendation to member states on actions to be employed. Member states must then choose to adopt the proposed sanctions. In the case of egregious violations this same bureaucracy appeals to the U.N. bureaucracy for stronger actions.

Rarely has anything rapid or decisive ever come out of the United Nations. Countries are being coerced into signing this instrument under the threat of economic sanctions. This eliminates the primary operating assumption of the treaty: good intentions. A country so coerced might for economic reasons sign the treaty and then for the same reasons continue to provide covert assistance to rogue nations.

As a hypothetical example suppose France, in spite of signing the treaty, was to assist a rogue country such as Iraq (a non-signatory of the treaty) with development of its own chemical weapons capability by providing either technical assistance or dual-use chemicals and equipment. What are we to do about it? Do we demand an on-site inspection of the "baby formula" plant in Iraq? Do we perform an on-site inspection of the parent company in France?

What if only technical assistance and industrial equipment are provided? Are we to demand travel visa information on personnel and the logistics logs from all French industrial hardware production firms? What sanctions will the Organization’s Executive Council impose on France or will the United States just apply sanctions unilaterally? Will we go to war with France if American troops are gassed as a result of chemical weapons produced by French technologies?

In exchange for this tactical achievement of benign enforcement, we have invited the world to share in our state-of-the-art chemical development and production processes and in our most critical chemical weapons defense technologies. To answer this concern, there are assurances in writing that this will not be the case from a President who can’t be trusted. What’s more, world history proves the metaphor that a camel that persists in putting its nose under the tent eventually gets a good night’s sleep.

On the subject of administration, the U.S. has forfeited and not enhanced its leadership role in the chemical weapons reduction arena. Ninety percent of the world’s chemical weapons stockpiles are in the United States, Russia, and China. Yet out of paranoia about American hegemony, the U.S. only has one vote in 41 on the Executive Council of the treaty Organization which, by the way, has its headquarters in the Netherlands.

You will find us referred to in the treaty in Article 8, Section C, paragraph 23 (e) as "Western European and other States." After a brief honeymoon we will stand a better chance at having real influence in this whole affair by direct appeal to the United Nations where we at least have veto power and a real voice on the U.N. Security Council. This is where sanctions and stronger measures for violations ultimately must be considered anyway.

This treaty is a well-constructed gentleman’s agreement but nothing more. It does little to accurately strike at the heart of the chemical weapons proliferation problem. There is no decisive means by which this treaty can be enforced. But alas, the treaty is now ratified for reasons similar to why our military intervention in Bosnia became necessary. We were the brokers of the Dayton Peace Accord, which is also lacking in the three aforementioned critical elements that might have made it practical.

It would be unthinkable for the U.S. to stand up to the world’s ridicule because we threw the party and then everybody else showed up but us. Ultimately the Senate had to ratify a technically accurate but empirically flawed treaty because it was our brainchild. And so once again we have shown a knack for the foreign policy equivalent of self-immolation. It seems that for the U.S., like everyone else, old habits die hard.

Mr. Clinton’s spin of "everybody’s doing it" plays warmly not only in the fields of campaign finance but apparently also in the realm arms control treaties. Hopefully, this will be a treaty whose smoke we won’t ever have to inhale!

Mr. Tauber recently completed a 15-year civilian career with the Department of the Air Force working in the areas of scientific & technical intelligence analysis and weapons systems testing and evaluation. He is now a management consultant and lives in Henderson.

Return to June Index