Clinton's Nuclear Alarm

Clinton's Nuclear Alarm

Clinton's Nuclear Alarm

How you look at things.
Oct. 20 1999 3:30 AM

Clinton's Nuclear Alarm

Last week, 51 Republican senators voted not to ratify the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The direct result of this vote was virtually nothing. No missiles were launched. No bombs were detonated. No agreements were voided. The treaty itself remained open to ratification. Instead, analysts agreed that the import of the vote lay in the "signal" it sent to foreign governments. At his news conference the next day, President Clinton had an opportunity to define that signal for good or ill. He chose both. While assuring other nations that the vote signified no change in America's commitment to nonproliferation, he told Americans that arms control had suffered a disastrous setback and that the United States was withdrawing from the world.

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Clinton's equivocation on the test ban vote is the latest chapter in the struggle between his two personalities, Policy Bill and Political Bill. Policy Bill strives for solutions and looks for deals. Political Bill strives for advantage and looks for fights. Policy Bill treats elections as a means to passing legislation. Political Bill treats legislation as a means to winning elections. Policy Bill wants arms control as an accomplishment. Political Bill wants it as a festering issue. Policy Bill wants to frame the treaty vote in a way that will calm the world by minimizing the perceived damage to arms control. Political Bill wants to frame it in a way that will alarm American voters by maximizing that perceived damage.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Republicans said they voted against the treaty because it lacked adequate monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, wouldn't affect rogue states, and imposed too permanent a commitment on the United States to refrain from testing. Several indicated that they would have supported it if Clinton had worked with them to amend it. By voting against it, were Republicans giving foreign regimes a "green light" to test nuclear weapons? No, they replied. They argued that the best safeguard against proliferation was the previously ratified Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and that Clinton was sending a "green light" by failing to enforce that pact. Was the GOP turning away from the world? No, said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "The Republicans are not isolationists. We're the party of GATT, NAFTA, and the WTO." Were they rejecting arms control? No, said the Republicans. They observed that pragmatic hawks such as Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who had supported previous arms control pacts, deemed this one unwise. "The leader of the nonproliferation effort over the last 50 years, the United States of America, is not abandoning its leadership," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "I don't believe that's what that vote was about."

Clinton could have used his news conference to affirm this soothing message, as Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., did in a joint appearance with Hagel. "We have come together today to say to anyone who will listen, to the American people, and hopefully to people around the world, that although there are not now sufficient votes in the Senate to ratify this test ban treaty, that does not mean that the cause of nuclear nonproliferation died on the Senate floor yesterday," said Lieberman. "That cause ... is embraced by a great majority in Congress," he went on. "We do want to signal to nations around the world in the aftermath of yesterday's vote that neither the American people nor the United States Senate are walking away from our responsibility to lead the effort" against proliferation.

At Clinton's news conference, his two personalities wrestled over how to spin the vote. Policy Bill played it down. "We will not abandon the commitments inherent in the treaty and resume testing ourselves," he told the world. "I call on Russia, China, Britain, France, and all other countries to continue to refrain from testing. I call on nations that have not done so to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And I will continue to do all I can to make that case to the Senate. When all is said and done, I have no doubt that the United States will ratify this treaty. ... We are not going to reverse 40 years of commitment on nonproliferation." He concluded: "So I urge [other nations] not to overreact, to make clear their opposition to what the Senate did, but to stay with us and believe in the United States, because the American people want us to lead toward nonproliferation."

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But Political Bill was determined to punish Republicans at the polls by depicting their vote as a repudiation of arms control. They had "betrayed the vision of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy" and embraced "a new isolationism," he charged. "The Senate majority has turned its back on 50 years of American leadership against the spread of weapons of mass destruction. They are saying America does not need to lead either by effort or by example. They are saying we don't need our friends or allies. ... We say to them [our allies], 'Go take a hike.' ... We're not cooperating with them anymore. 'As far as we're concerned ... anything you want to do with your money is fine with us, because we have more money than you do, so whatever you do, we'll do more.' "

Political Bill's scare tactics destroyed Policy Bill's reassurances. "The Chinese should have every assurance that, at least as long as this administration is here, we support [the moratorium on] nuclear testing," said Policy Bill. Abruptly, Political Bill interjected, "Now, if we ever get a president that's against the test ban treaty, which we may get--I mean, there are plenty of people out there who say they're against it--then I think you might as well get ready for it. You'll have Russia testing, you'll have China testing, you'll have India testing, you'll have Pakistan testing. You'll have countries abandoning the Nonproliferation Treaty." Political Bill didn't care how these words affected world leaders. To him, the test ban treaty was just another wedge issue. That's why he opened his news conference not by distinguishing arms control as a transcendent responsibility but by lumping it together with budget politics: "In recent days, members of the congressional majority have displayed a reckless partisanship. It threatens America's economic well-being and now our national security."

Clinton's partisan teammates repeated his alarmist spin. "This vote sent a dangerous message to people around the world," said Hillary Clinton. In a campaign ad endorsed by Senate Democrats and the White House, Vice President Al Gore warned, "This vote goes against the tide of history." The Senate had decided to "roll back 50 years of progress on real efforts to stem the nuclear proliferation," lamented Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, calling it "a definitive vote that said, 'Around the world, we relegate leadership on nuclear proliferation to somebody else.' " The Democrats' campaign chief, Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J., charged, "Republican senators have bought responsibility for the North Koreans and the Iranians and the Iraqis in the next decade, [who] almost assuredly will continue now with nuclear programs. ... Other nations are going to interpret this vote by the Senate as an opportunity to break out of [arms] controls."

Foreign governments and the media were already inclined to interpret the vote as a renunciation of arms control and global engagement. Clinton only encouraged that interpretation. The vote "halted the momentum" toward nuclear arms control and "further weakened the already shaky standing of the United States as a global moral leader," the New York Times concluded in a front-page analysis the day after Clinton's news conference. Another Times story added that "fears have been heightened by what looks like an American renunciation of any controls over its huge nuclear arsenal," and "the appearance that Americans are moving away from international agreements and responsibilities can also be alarming." A Los Angeles Times analysis said the Senate was "signaling an ominous retreat from the world."

The perverse irony of the nuclear age is that the survival of humankind has rested as much on international perception as on reality. Thirty years ago, it rested on the perception that we were willing to build bombs and deploy them. Today it rests increasingly on the perception that we're willing to stop. Clinton has the ability to sustain that perception despite the test ban's defeat. If only he had the will.