Ira Chernus  


The Senate will not be ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) this year. The Republican leadership made sure of that when it brought the Treaty to the floor with no advance warning. It was a shrewd move, though it thwarts the will of the people. Polls show that more than three-quarters of us want to see the CTBT ratified.

If the president and the Democrats had enough time, they could mobilize public support and perhaps put irresistible pressure on the Republicans. They could explain that, without U.S. ratification, would-be nuclear powers like India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran will have no reason to turn back. The nuclear arms race will go on.

This seems to be want the Republicans want. They have no problem with nukes, as long as the U.S. keeps the technological lead. We have always had that lead. We will keep it, the Republicans trust, as long as we can test new weapons. That puts the GOP squarely against public opinion. So Trent Lottís plan is to push through the vote, and defeat the treaty, before the public really grasps what is happening.

The president and the Democrats have been caught off guard and cried "Foul." But it is hard to feel sorry for them. Their strategy to secure ratification was doomed from the start.

It seemed clever enough. They could win this one, they figured, if only they could get the right political support. The peace and disarmament lobby, with its grassroots activists across the country, would surely work hard for CTBT. The big prize was the three national nuclear laboratories (Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico, and Livermore in California). The labs have all the prestige of "expertise" and a powerful lobby in Washington. Their support would give the anti-CTBT Republicans no leg on which to stand.

To buy that support, the Clinton administration offered a rich bait: the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which sends some $4.5 billion a year to the labs every year. The official story is that the money would be used only to keep existing weapons "safe and reliable." In fact, Stockpile Stewardship pays for research on new weapons systems and new ways to test them in labs and computers, with no full-scale nuclear explosions. (So-called "subcritical" tests continue, under the Nevada desert.) Even with CTBT, the arms race would continue, and the U.S. would stay ahead for a long time to come.

But Clintonís plan backfired. The heads of the three labs no longer give unqualified support to the treaty. This week, NPR and the Washington Post have told us why. Existing weapons can be tested just fine without explosions. But they donít yet have the technology to test new weapons without explosions. The labs wonít give up their right to test new nukes. When the labs waffled, they gave treaty critics enough fuel to insure its defeat.

Had it been the Republicans and the labs against the mobilized will of the people, the CTBT still might have survived. But it didnít turn out that way, because Clintonís plan backfired on the left too. It split the arms control lobby, whose support he took for granted. Activists asked themselves: Is CTBT worth the price of Stockpile Stewardship? Some said yes. Half a loaf, they reasoned, is better than none. Once the treaty was ratified, activists could train their sights on Stockpile Stewardship.

Others vehemently disagreed. To endorse CTBT now, they argued, is to endorse the whole package deal. They feared that Stockpile Stewardship would be locked in, with the apparent blessing of the whole peace and disarmament movement. Some argued that the whole thing was a ploy to give the U.S. even greater dominance in nuclear weapons technology.

The Democrats needed a powerful and united disarmament lobby working for the treaty. Every politician knows that the first rule is to solidify and mobilize your base. In this case, the administration managed to divide and thus paralyze its base. Now the Republicans can effortlessly conquer.

It might have been different, if the Clinton administration had served the public will and just said "No" to nukes. But it gambled on a political compromise, hoping to avoid a fight. Now it has no major disarmament accomplishment to show for its two terms in office. And the world has a green light to keep the nuclear arms race going.

It is a tragic testimony to the power of a frightened, zealous minority, who can feel secure only by building bigger bombs. When other nations get more nukes, will the U.S. public get so frightened that we will go back to a full-scale arms race, testing and all, like a frightened alcoholic running back to the bottle? Or will we finally stand up to the right-wing minority and demand our right to be really secure, in a world free of nukes?