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Arms Control

The Cold War was won at Reykjavik. The Senate's defeat of the test ban treaty is Reykjavik II.

11:00 PM, Oct 31, 1999 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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It is important to understand why the test ban treaty lost. The establishment press, in the most blatantly biased coverage since the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s (the establishment press has a habit of losing both its nerve and its head when contemplating nuclear weapons), has tried to portray this vote as the result of clever timing and maneuvering. In September, Byron Dorgan (D-ND) got up on the floor of the Senate and vowed to obstruct all Senate business -- "I intend to plant myself on the floor like a potted plant" -- unless the test ban treaty, which had been held back for two years by Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms, was put on the table for debate and a vote.


Meanwhile, "a handful of Republicans led by Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona had been secretly proselytizing their fellow members about the treaty" (in the hilariously conspiratorial accounting offered by the miffed New York Times) and neglected to tell the Democrats about their success. The Democrats thus fell into a "trap" when the Republicans acceded to the Democrats' demand and put the treaty on the calendar for a vote.


Ah, the duplicity. The Democrats complain that there was no time for debate. Time? Clinton signed the treaty in September 1996. He had three years to make his case. Where was he during all that time? If the treaty was so important to him, the country, and the world, why did he not go on television and make the case to the nation in the weeks and days before the vote?


Perhaps because the treaty is such a bad treaty. The longer it is subject to examination, the worse it looks. The CTBT is precisely the kind of arms control agreement that at first blush gets instant support. A universal test ban. What could be wrong with that?


It takes time to explain. First, no treaty should prohibit what it cannot detect. This treaty bans all nuclear explosions, but it cannot detect low-yield explosions. That means that those countries like the United States that have an open society and a free press will adhere to the treaty and test nothing, while those that do not -- North Korea, Iraq, Iran, perhaps even China and Russia -- will be able to conduct vital low yield-tests with impunity. As C. Paul Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, testified before Congress, "If the United States scrupulously restricts itself to zero-yield while other nations may conduct experiments up to the threshold of international detectability, we will be at an intolerable disadvantage."


Moreover, the treaty is not just unverifiable, it is disarming. Literally. Without testing, the reliability and usability of the American nuclear arsenal will inevitably erode. Nuclear weapons are incredibly complex mechanisms made up of many parts, with a radioactive core that is bombarding the rest of the mechanism at all times. They simply cannot be relied upon over time without fixes and without testing.


The nuclear arsenal is all the more important to the United States because we have already forsworn, for good reason, chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are our only means of retaliation and deterrence. It was the threat of nuclear weapons, for example, that kept Saddam from using his chemical weapons in the Gulf War.


Administration officials protest that we have sophisticated computer programs that will substitute for testing. This claim happens to be wrong. There is great uncertainty, even in the expert nuclear community, as to whether we really can maintain confidence in the reliability of the arsenal without occasional explosions. Robinson himself testified to Congress that reliability through computer simulation is 10 to 20 years away. And that was an optimistic prediction, based on the perhaps unrealistic assumption that we will be able to replace our cadre of weapons scientists after we abolish testing.


But assume it is right that sophisticated computer programs can substitute for testing. What then is the point of the treaty? The tests are just a means. They are not atmospherically polluting, like the kind that were banned in 1963. The only purpose of banning all underground tests is as a first and inexorable step towards disarmament. The whole idea is to make nuclear weapons unreliable and unusable, as the more candid of the test ban proponents admit.


For those who claim not to want disarmament, the paradox is unanswerable: Either a test ban degrades nuclear arsenals and thus ushers in an era of nuclear disarmament, or it does not. If it does, then it is catastrophically dangerous to the United States, because our nuclear arsenal, the ultimate deterrent, is what preserves the safety of the United States and those allies that live under its nuclear umbrella.