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President Clinton and Disarmament:
Missing an Appointment With History?


By David Krieger


At the outset of President Clinton's second term there was hope among those working for a more peaceful world that the new term would be different and more positive than the first term. Clinton has been a master at generating hope--and then dashing it with policies that fail to meet the expectations he has engendered. Sadly, by his lack of positive initiative in the area of disarmament, President Clinton may be missing his appointment with history.

Clinton began his first term as U.S. President by announcing support for gays in the military. The military opposition to this was so strong that Clinton has not challenged the military on any issue since. Even now in his second term, with no further elections facing him, Clinton appears to be incapable of challenging the military in any significant way, no matter how outrageous their appetite for armaments and other resources.

Most recently, under pressure from the military, Clinton refused to support the ban on land mines, which has now been signed by over 100 other countries. The reason given was that land mines were needed to protect U.S. troops in Korea. Weighing the risks to U.S. troops from a low probability of attack by North Korea against the ongoing carnage of some 26,000 civilians annually caused by land mines, Clinton again made a short-sighted choice. It is a choice, however, which fits his pattern of supporting the position espoused by the military regardless of the values of human decency being trampled upon or the prospects of creating a more peaceful world.

Congressman Walter Capps responded to the President's refusal to support the land mine ban, stating, "I rise today in great dismay over the President's decision not to sign the Ottawa Treaty banning antipersonnel land mines. The administration's position defies reason. The only way that the United States can show leadership on this issue is to sign the comprehensive ban treaty on these deadly devices. One hundred nations courageously have changed their policy, but U.S. lawyers have simply changed the definition of a land mine.

"But a land mine by any other name is still a land mine, and land mines are immoral. People around the globe have come together to say, no more. No more killing, no more maiming, no more maiming of innocents. No more fear of leaving one's home to find food. No more social and economic dislocation to the world's neediest countries. I ask the President to sign the treaty to ban the antipersonnel land mines."

President Clinton has supported an unnecessarily high military budget in the post-Cold War period. The U.S. budget for "defense" of around $265 billion per year exceeds the combined military expenditures of the next nine highest spending countries. It is more than 25 times greater than the combined military budgets of countries which might be perceived as potential enemies of the United States, such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and North Korea. These huge military expenditures are expected to continue throughout Clinton's second term to the detriment of domestic programs for health and education and alleviation of poverty in the United States and abroad.

Under Clinton's leadership, the U.S. continues to be the world's largest arms dealer. In 1996 the U.S. sold $13.8 billion in weapons and military supplies to the rest of the world, including some $7.3 billion to developing countries. The Clinton Administration has been active in seeking new markets for U.S. weapons. In 1997 President Clinton reversed a 20 year prohibition on the sale of sophisticated weapons systems to Latin America. He appears to be willing to sell high-tech military equipment to Latin America, such as jet fighters, that even Presidents Reagan and Bush would not consider doing.

When the U.S. Congress passed an Arms Trade Code of Conduct as an amendment to the State Department Authorization Act, which set limits on selling arms to dictators, including the most egregious violators of human rights, the Clinton Administration opposed the legislation. The Administration argued that the President needed the freedom to sell arms to whatever countries he chose, regardless of their human right records or whether or not they were democracies.

Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, the principal sponsor of the Arms Trade Code of Conduct amendment, has pointed out, "In the past four years, 85 percent of U.S. arms sales to the Third World have gone to undemocratic governments. The United States is responsible for 44 percent of all weapons deliveries in the world. The United States is unqualifiedly the arms dealer to the world, and the merchant for death to the world's dictators." During Clinton's first term in office, his administration supported the militaries of non-democratic governments with $35.9 billion for arms and training, an average of $9 billion per year. This was 82 percent of the $44 billion in total U.S. military support for developing nations.

In the area of nuclear disarmament, President Clinton has been a great disappointment. He has done virtually nothing to advance the process toward a nuclear weapons free world. In fact, he has taken steps which move us in the opposite direction. His strong advocacy of NATO expansion is viewed by the Russians as threatening and has been an impediment to the Russian Duma ratifying START II. George Kennan has called NATO expansion "the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era."

The Clinton administration agreed with the Russians earlier this year to push back the date for completing START II reductions to 3,000-3,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads for five years from the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2007. The number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads is only about one-third of the total number of nuclear weapons that each side will continue to retain in its arsenal. At the same time, the administration negotiated Russian approval for the U.S. to continue its extensive Ballistic Missile Defense testing without being in violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

President Clinton has had preliminary discussions with Russian President Yeltsin about a START III agreement to reduce deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to 2,000-2,500 by the year 2007. This would be a reduction of some 1,000 nuclear warheads beyond START II levels in the five year period following the initial date set for completion of START II. While this is a welcome small step, it is a step of minimal significance which largely misses the unique opportunity now available to take larger strides.

While President Clinton did give leadership in achieving a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the U.S. has already begun conducting "sub-critical" nuclear weapons tests in the first year of his new term. This testing, which may be used to improve the reliability and efficiency of nuclear weapons and even to test new weapons designs, is widely viewed by non- nuclear weapons states to be a sign of bad faith and to undermine the treaty. U.S. "sub-critical" tests may lead other nuclear weapons states to conduct similar tests, and could lead to a breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.S., under Clinton's leadership, is also embarking on a $60 billion Stockpile Stewardship Program over the next 13 years, a main feature of which is laboratory testing of nuclear weapons. The program includes the development of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory for conducting thermonuclear tests with high powered lasers.

The most positive effort made by President Clinton on disarmament issues was his leadership in achieving Senate ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. He has also indicated his intention to provide leadership for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It is unlikely that this treaty will ever enter into force, however, because India's ratification is also necessary for this to happen. India has stated that it will not ratify the treaty until the declared nuclear weapons states make a serious commitment to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, as they are required to do by Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Clinton Administration has taken some positive steps to control the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Overall, however, the Administration's record on disarmament leaves considerable room for improvement. President Clinton's Administration has continued to feed the military's gargantuan appetite for resources, has been the major pusher of armaments throughout the world, has been largely indiscriminate in the sale of armaments, has been hypocritical in its approach to arms control and disarmament, has failed to seize the extraordinary opportunity now present for nuclear disarmament, and has opposed reasonable and needed measures such as the ban on land mines.

In part, the Clinton administration's record on disarmament may be attributable to having to compromise in order to contend with a conservative Congress. This, however, does not explain fully why President Clinton has failed to provide more significant leadership in realizing the opportunities for disarmament presented by the end of the Cold War.

If Mr. Clinton wants to be remembered positively for his accomplishments in the area of controlling armaments and achieving disarmament in his second term, he will need to rethink most of his present policies and exercise more visionary and courageous leadership in approaching disarmament and the curtailment of arms transfers as a means to increase U.S. and global security. If he fails to exercise such leadership, he will almost certainly miss his appointment with history.


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David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a founding member of and global contact point for the Abolition 2000 Global Network for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and TFF adviser.

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