Banning Chemical Weapons: Negotiating Unilateral US Disarmament

In recent months, starting with the NATO summit in May, the Administration has been generating arms control and related initiatives across a broad front. These initiatives share a disturbing trait: they appear to subordinate longstanding national interests to the desire to be seen as competitive with the myriad public relations gambits advanced by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Unfortunately, the list of such ill-advised — and often ill-considered — American proposals is growing. The following are among those that have been hastily fashioned and introduced by the United States during the past four months:

  • agreeing to include tactical aircraft and personnel in the negotiations on conventional forces reductions now underway in Vienna, against the advice of NATO’s military experts;

  • acceding to Soviet and West German pressure to negotiate reductions in short-range nuclear forces, a step that will inevitably increase the pressure to strip Western Europe of its remaining nuclear defenses;

  • abandoning the United States’ position in the strategic arms reduction talks that all mobile ICBMs must be banned, setting the stage for a wholly unverifiable START Treaty; and

  • offering to eliminate travel restrictions that help the FBI cope with the burgeoning problem of Soviet espionage in the United States.


Chemical Weapons: A Case Study of a Reckless Approach to Arms Control

In no area has the Bush Administration’s preoccupation with the public relations aspects of arms control policy been more clearly in evidence than in the recent U.S.-Soviet byplay at the United Nations concerning chemical weapons (CW). On the 25th of September, George Bush proposed that, as part of an effort to accelerate progress toward a global ban on such weapons, the United States and the Soviet Union should agree to make massive reductions in their respective CW arsenals.

The good news is that the Bush proposal at least implicitly endorsed a key concept: Until every country capable of producing chemical weapons agrees verifiably to eliminate that capability, the United States needs to retain a modest, but effective, CW stockpile. This commonsensical position ensures the continuing ability to deter chemical attacks against U.S. personnel and allies. It also offers a defensible basis for continuing American efforts to modernize chemical weaponry by introducing safer, "binary" munitions.

The bad news is that the President has undermined this concept by putting it forward as an element in his campaign to reach early agreement on an accord prohibiting these weapons.

Arms Control "Chicken:" The Soviets One-Up the Bush Proposal

From a purely tactical point of view, this approach is incredibly short-sighted. It invites the sort of Soviet response which Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze obligingly supplied the day after President Bush addressed the U.N.: If the Americans are so determined to eliminate all chemical weapons, let the superpowers agree immediately not to produce such weapons anymore and bilaterally to destroy their stockpiles without waiting for a global ban to be negotiated.

Within hours of its unveiling, the Bush chemical weapons proposal was thus trumped by the Soviet counteroffer. By trying to beat the Soviets at their game — using unsound arms control initiatives in a bidding war for public opinion — the Administration was quickly portrayed as less imaginative, insufficiently willing to "take risks for peace" and determined, despite its rhetoric, to build the very weapons it says should be banned. In short order, the Administration was compelled to describe the Soviet gambit as "positive" and creating "common ground" which could be usefully explored(1).

The Strategic Problem with Chemical Arms Control

The abhorrent nature of chemical weapons has made their limitation a priority for many years. Regrettably, the record of efforts to negotiate effective constraints on them is not a good one. In 1925, following the horrific experience of chemical warfare in World War I, an international convention was signed which attempts to do nothing more than bar the first-use of chemical weapons.

Yet, even this relatively modest CW agreement has proven extremely difficult to verify and still more problematic to enforce. As blatant a case as Iraq’s repeated use of chemical weapons during its war with Iran and in the course of genocidal attacks on Iraqi Kurds failed to precipitate so much as significant condemnation — let alone meaningful sanctions — from the world community.

A "Global" and "Verifiable" CW Ban: A Dangerous Delusion

Unfortunately, the prospects for verifying and enforcing compliance with an infinitely more ambitious worldwide ban on the production and possession of chemical weapons are worse still. Indeed, responsible CW experts recognize that a "global" and "verifiable" ban on chemical weapons is simply not possible.


    The "Global" Flim-Flam

In the first instance, the ease with which lethal chemical agents can be produced means that any effort to control such production is truly a universal problem. These agents can, for instance, be manufactured in any chemistry laboratory. With commercially available equipment, CW agents can even be created in relatively austere, confined spaces with no telltale signatures to provide outsiders with evidence of the character of the work underway.

What is more, virtually any plant used to manufacture fertilizers, pesticides or pharmaceutical products can be readily adapted to churn out large quantities of the toxic chemical agents. Today, such facilities exist all over the world.

Under these circumstances, a "global" chemical weapons ban would have to be of wholly impractical scope and comprehensiveness to have any chance of being effective. In fact, few devotees of a CW treaty believe such an arrangement is feasible. Indeed, some chemical weapons ban advocates go so far as to say that it is unreasonable to hold U.S. acceptance of the ban hostage to a decision by Libya, Iraq or others to participate. They believe the goal of getting most nations to participate in a CW treaty is too important to allow the fact that some decline to stand in the way. Such thinking is the very antithesis of the concept of a "global" ban.

It is interesting to note on this point that the draft CW accord now being developed in Geneva would require only that sixty countries have to enroll before the treaty enters into force. At this writing, it is unclear what the impact, if any, would be should nations known to be capable of chemical weapons production not be among the sixty signatories. Suffice it to say, however, that such an arrangement does not augur well for the "global" character of the CW ban.


    The Verification Scam

The prospects for a comprehensive CW ban to be verifiable are no better. Factors contributing to this assessment include:

  • the inherent difficulty in monitoring the character and disposition of chemical agents especially insofar as innocuous chemicals can be maintained separately and only joined to form a toxic compound once a binary-type weapon is fired;

  • the ease with which chemical munitions, thanks to their small size, can be concealed;

  • the great similarities between facilities that manufacture lethal chemical agents and those that make non-military chemical products; and

  • the fact that launchers used to deliver CW are the same as those that launch many other types of ordinance.


Taken together, these add up to an inescapable conclusion: There is simply no effective way to monitor covert CW programs or to ensure that non-compliance with an agreement will be detected. This is so notwithstanding President Bush’s sanguine assurance at the United Nations that "we can achieve the level of verification that gives us confidence to go forward with the ban." To the contrary, as the Reagan Administration understood, effective means of verifying covert chemical weapons production and stockpiling remain to be developed and are highly unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future.

In fact, however intrusive or comprehensive the inspection regime developed for a chemical weapons ban might be, it will be entirely inadequate to ensure that lethal chemical agents are not covertly produced and stored wherever nations, organizations or individuals wish to do so.

The Bottom Line: A CW Ban Means Unilateral U.S. CW Disarmament

For the foregoing reasons, an agreement purporting to ban all chemical weapons simply cannot guarantee the absence of lethal chemical agents worldwide. In fact, all it can do is establish a regime that will preclude those signatories — like the United States — who faithfully adhere to their commitments under international arms control agreements, from retaining retaliatory chemical stockpiles. Such stockpiles have been historically shown to be a singularly effective deterrent to the use of CW against those who possess them. Their absence has repeatedly proven an invitation to chemical attack; indeed, CW attacks have to date only been initiated against nations that were unable to respond in kind.

The United States has already had the experience of being party to an agreement that purports to ban the possession of horrific lethal agents — only to discover that others are violating its terms. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention was supposed to preclude the production or stockpiling of agents for biological warfare (BW). While America has more than lived up to the terms of this agreement — it has, for all intents and purposes, even dispensed with permitted research and development associated with BW defenses — it has considerable evidence that other signatories are systematically violating the Convention.

Particularly troubling in this regard were indications that the Soviet Union has continued to pursue a vigorous BW program. In 1985, President Reagan found these indications sufficiently worrisome to charge the USSR with violating the Biological Weapons Convention. He specifically cited an explosion at a plant near Sverdlovsk in Siberia suspected of association with the Soviet BW program. This event resulted in a large number of deaths in the surrounding community from the deadly anthrax virus. In the absence of any international response to this particularly egregious violation, the Soviet biological weapons program has reportedly proceeded apace.

So Why is the Bush Administration Determined to Pursue a CW Ban?

In light of the foregoing, the Bush Administration’s enthusiasm for a comprehensive CW ban appears somewhat puzzling. In fact, there is only one explanation for it: Mr. Bush has become — even, according to published reports, in the eyes of his own staff — "fixated" on a achieving a ban on chemical weapons.

The President’s obsession evidently dates from 1982 when, as Vice President, he was obliged to cast the first of three controversial tie-breaking votes in the U.S. Senate needed to resume U.S. chemical weapons production suspended in 1969. It is said that Mr. Bush’s mother, who is a devoted arms controller, severely upbraided him for playing this pivotal role in starting American production of safer binary chemical munitions.

By way of penance, George Bush apparently resolved to become the champion of a new chemical arms control regime aimed at banning all such production and stockpiling. In 1984, he personally introduced at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva a U.S. draft treaty prepared in great haste for the occasion and submitted despite the fact that extensive work on its verification aspects remained to be done.

The Reagan Administration Saw the Need to Shift Course on CW

Worse yet, Mr. Bush’s devotion to a CW ban prevented the Reagan Administration in 1987 from adopting a more honest and responsible position regarding such an accord. This episode speaks volumes about the President’s determination to bring about a chemical weapons ban despite its manifest problems and the attendant risks.

Over the past few years, as the U.S. binary modernization program got underway, the Soviet Union became ever more determined to conclude a CW ban quickly. The Soviets understand full well that — with or without a new treaty — the West will be unable to determine the true status of the USSR’s CW program; there is, for example, a six-fold difference between public U.S. and Soviet estimates of the USSR’s CW arsenal (i.e., the Soviets are judged to have stockpiled some 300,000 agent tons whereas they have (only recently) acknowledged possessing a mere 50,000 agent tons).

Consequently, in 1987, American demands for intrusive inspection arrangements that had previously deadlocked the chemical arms control talks suddenly seemed acceptable to the USSR. The Reagan Administration was confronted with an unhappy prospect: Unless the U.S. position in favor of an early completion of such a comprehensive CW ban was modified, it might be forced to conclude an agreement — to whose objectives it (and its predecessors) had paid lip-service for years — that it knew would, nonetheless, be dangerously flawed and unverifiable.

As a result, in the latter part of that year, every relevant agency in the U.S. government concluded that the United States needed to alter its position on the desirability of quickly reaching such a comprehensive chemical weapons ban. But for the objections of a representative of then-Vice President Bush, the United States would formally have given up the quest for a near-term CW ban in favor of other, less ambitious objectives.

Ironically, absent that intervention from Vice President Bush’s office, the U.S. government might well have adopted in 1987 a position rather like the first part of the U.S. initiative announced at the United Nations last week. After all, many in the Reagan Administration believed that the United States should declare its intention dramatically to reduce its aging chemical arsenal in the context of retaining a smaller but modern and militarily effective retaliatory CW stockpile. There was also a widely shared view that so long as any nation on earth retained the capability to manufacture chemical weapons this sort of residual deterrent stockpile would be required.

A Different U.S. Approach Must Be Urgently Adopted

Unfortunately, having failed to adopt such a stance in 1987 — and doing so today only in the context of the President’s headlong pursuit of an early agreement completely banning chemical arms — the United States is in an exceedingly difficult position. On the one hand, seeming presidential insouciance regarding the intractable problems inherent in such a ban invites contrived, cosmetic "solutions."

On the other, as the public and Congress are encouraged to believe a comprehensive CW accord is imminent, pressure will inevitably grow to dispense with the vitally needed, long-term program for modernizing the U.S. chemical retaliatory stockpile as obsolete munitions are phased out. After all, as the Soviets are arguing, if the complete elimination of chemical arsenals is in imminent prospect, why should that of the United States be upgraded at an expense of hundreds of millions of dollars and at the risk of encouraging other nations to engage in their own chemical build-ups?

The Center for Security Policy believes that, under these circumstances, President Bush must abandon his well-intentioned but totally unrealistic — and ultimately highly dangerous — policy of accelerated pursuit of a global ban on chemical weapons. Instead, the President must accept reality: A comprehensive ban on chemical weapons can neither be effectively verified nor ensure that all who might seek to produce and possess CW will be precluded from doing so.

Consequently, America’s energies in the chemical weapons area ought to be focussed on the maintenance of modest chemical retaliatory capabilities and the destruction of the preponderance of the obsolescing U.S. CW stockpile. At the same time, the United States should seek to provide means of enforcing the present arms control regime banning first use of chemical weapons. It should also work with its friends and allies to slow CW proliferation around the world through the adoption of export controls and appropriate sanctions.

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1.This turn of events is astonishingly similar to the effusive U.S. reaction to wholly spurious statements by Soviet officials to the effect that the USSR would no longer link completion of a START agreement to rigorous constraints on SDI. As was discussed in a paper recently released by the Center entitled The Soviet Wyoming Formula on START Would Kill SDI, the Soviets’ purported "flexibility" is actually of a piece with its longstanding effort to hobble American strategic defenses. As with START, the Soviet Union’s eagerness to reach agreement on a chemical weapons ban should not be confused with a mutuality of interests on substance.

Center for Security Policy

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