The Earthling

Jesse Helms’ Poison Gas

Five stupid claims about the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Since Jesse Helms became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1995, many of his missteps have been harmless, even amusing. Who among us didn’t chuckle when he introduced the prime minister of Pakistan to the Senate as “the distinguished prime minister of India”? But now comes the horrifying prospect that Helms could actually play an important role in world history. The Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by roughly the entire civilized world, awaits Senate ratification and is bottled up in Helms’ committee.

According to Helms, the CWC has two large defects. First, the treaty’s verification rules would violate U.S. sovereignty, allowing foreign inspectors to swoop down on a factory “without probable cause, without a search warrant,” and “interrogate employees,” “remove documents,” and so on. Second, the treaty isn’t tough enough to reliably sniff out chemical weapons. Hard man to please.

L et’s leave aside Helms’ factual errors (he’s about the search warrants) and look at his basic paradox: that the treaty is too tough, yet not tough enough. This is not logically impossible. Chemical weapons could, in theory, be so elusive that even a sovereignty-crushing inspection regime couldn’t find them. But if that’s Helms’ view, then he is opposed not just to this CWC, but to the very idea of such a convention. Why doesn’t he just admit it?

In any event, the second half of Helms’ paradox is the claim now being emphasized by his allies in their crusade against the CWC. Via radio, TV, and op-ed pages, we’re being told that the treaty is “not verifiable.” In a sense, this is true. The convention will definitely not succeed in sniffing out all chemical weapons everywhere. But it will definitely do a better job than is being done–or not done–now. Given this upside, the question becomes: What’s the downside? Helms and his allies offer five downsides, all of which vaporize under inspection.

1Huge regulatory burden. Opponents of the treaty initially exercised the basic Republican reflex of complaining about the cost to U.S. business. It’s true that U.S. chemical manufacturers will have to fill out some forms. But if the United States doesn’t join the treaty, these same manufacturers lose sales to nations that do join. That’s one reason the Chemical Manufacturers Association heartily supports the treaty.

2. Medium-sized regulatory burden. Faced with the big chemical companies’ support of the treaty, opponents tried arguing that America’s small businesses would bear an unwarranted burden. Helms resoundingly declared on the Senate floor that the National Federation of Independent Business opposes the treaty. Unfortunately, an NFIB spokesman then pointed out that this isn’t true. It is “our belief,” the spokesman told the Wall Street Journal, that “our members are not going to be impacted” by the treaty.

3. Our men in uniform. Some treaty opponents argue that if the United States destroys its chemical weapons, it will have surrendered a vital deterrent to chemical attacks. But you don’t need chemical weapons to deter chemical weapons. As Leonard Cole, author of The Eleventh Plague, has observed, Saddam Hussein refrained from using his vast chemical stockpile during the Persian Gulf War not because he feared retaliation in kind, but because he feared retaliation of comparable, or greater, magnitude. (Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who has retired and thus needn’t toe the administration’s line, supports the CWC.) Even before the treaty, the United States had decided to destroy its chemical arsenal, deeming it a needless headache. No one had even bothered to complain about this until the treaty linked it to the dreaded New World Order.

4. Surrender of sovereignty, Part 2. In a USA Today op-ed piece, Helms asserted that the treaty would “require that the U.S. assist Cuba and Iran in modernizing their chemical-weapons facilities.” That would be strange, wouldn’t it? A treaty expressly devoted to eliminating chemical weapons obliges members to help build them? This claim is based on of a somewhat opaque section of the treaty, and is widely considered ridiculous.

5. Triumph of the rogues. Helms: “North Korea, Libya, Iraq, and Syria–all principal sponsors of terrorism and repositories of chemical weapons–are not signatories and won’t be affected.” Well, it’s true that these nations aren’t signatories (though most suspected chemical-weapons possessors, including China and Iran, are). But it’s quite false to say that they “won’t be affected.” In fact, they will be shut out of the market for many chemicals, including “dual use” chemicals that are ingredients of both nerve gas and things like ink. This is part of the innovative genius of the CWC: permanent economic sanctions against nonmembers.

Right now about two dozen countries are suspected of pursuing chemical-weapons programs, and they do so with impunity. After the treaty, they will fall into one of two camps: 1) those that suffer economic sanctions and a clear-cut stigma, and 2) those that have agreed to allow short-notice inspections of any suspicious site in their territory. That’s not progress?

It’s true that once an inspection is demanded, Iran (for example) can stall. Though the national government must escort inspectors to the perimeter of the suspected site, it can then argue that the search violates its constitution, or whatever. (If this national prerogative weren’t preserved, Helms and company would be the first to object.) Such a standoff, when it occurs, will trigger a global media event, with CNN broadcasting satellite shots of the suspected facility every 30 minutes, and so on. If this drags on for too long, and Iran (say) seems inexcusably obstinate, it can be judged noncompliant by a vote of convention members, and sanctioned accordingly.

All told, the treaty is so much tougher than anything in the history of global arms control that to call it an important evolutionary step borders on understatement. And it comes just in time, because technology for making biological weapons is spreading. What, you may ask, is the key difference between chemical and biological weapons? Oh, about a million corpses. Industrious CW-armed terrorists could kill thousands of New York subway riders in a day. Industrious BW-armed terrorists could more or less do Manhattan in the same time. Right now there is nothing approaching an international regime for keeping biological weapons out of the hands of terrorists. If there is ever to be one, it will have to resemble this treaty at least broadly: surprise inspections of suspicious sites, the economic and moral ostracism of nations that don’t cooperate, etc.

Will this approach work? We don’t know. It depends on such questions as 1) how effectively the industrialized nations can monitor the average rogue state once they start synergistically pooling their intelligence, and 2) how tough economic sanctions have to be before even the Syrias of the world fall into line. It’s much better to answer these questions now, with chemical weapons, than 10 years from now, with biological weapons.

The basic flow of world history, as I’m not the first to note, is toward interdependence. Increasingly, the world’s nations face common problems soluble only through concerted effort. This often involves some marginal sacrifice of sovereignty: an agreement by each nation to constrain its future behavior so long as others do, and systematic deference to international judgment. You see this logic at work in environmental issues (the Rio accords, now being toughened), economic issues (the World Trade Organization, growing in importance), and other areas. The proliferation of chemical and biological weapons is a paradigmatic problem of the future, and the CWC is a paradigmatic, if imperfect, solution. Jesse Helms is a paradigmatic relic.