Bush's Nuclear Test Ban Quandary

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John Shalikashvili, author of report recommending acceptance of nuclear test ban

Bill Clinton's last flourish on the Nuclear Test Ban treaty won't exactly set the cat among President-elect Bush's pigeons. But it may ultimately provoke some interesting discussions behind closed doors in the new administration. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General John Shalikashvili is due to report to President Clinton Friday on the findings of his investigation into whether the U.S. should ratify the treaty — and according to reports, the general will recommend, counter to last year's Senate vote, that ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is in the nation's best interests. No surprises there, since Shalikashvili had long been identified as one of a number of top military men supportive of the treaty, which they believe will help limit strategic threats to the U.S. But even though advocates of the treaty have previously included his own secretary of state-designate, General Colin Powell, Bush trashed the treaty on the campaign trail and will be tempted to simply ignore General Shalikashvili's arguments. After all, although President Clinton signed the treaty, he lost badly in a Senate vote on ratification, and it's hard to see why a president opposed to the pact would revive it.

Different views in the Bush camp?

On the campaign trail, Bush had dismissed the treaty's provisions as unverifiable and unenforceable, although his defense secretary nominee, Donald Rumsfeld, goes a lot further. Rumsfeld's complaint is that the CTBT would restrain the U.S. from developing a new generation of nuclear weapons — which is, of course, exactly what the treaty is designed to do: stop the arms race. Shalikashvili was mandated by President Clinton to meet with senators opposed to the treaty, and the result is a series of compromise proposals, such as a 10-year review and tighter verification procedures, designed to lure skeptics across the Senate floor.

Even if there may be sharply different views on the treaty within the new Bush administration, the President-elect is unlikely to revive the issue despite Shalikashvili's warning that failure to ratify the treaty squanders an opportunity to restrain nations such as China, India and Pakistan from upgrading their nuclear arsenals. If their position on missile defense is any indicator, it is clear that the geo-strategic outlook of the officials of the new Bush administration is less concerned with existing arms-control treaties than with building a high-tech nuclear umbrella to counter whatever threats may arise.

But it may be precisely the new administration's passion for missile defense that persuades them to reconsider ratifying the Test Ban Treaty. Right now, Washington stands alone among its NATO allies on the issue of missile defense, which the Europeans see as an unworkable and unwise scheme that will provoke Russia to abandon existing arms control agreements. Some analysts suspect that if the administration does plow ahead on missile defense, ratifying the CTBT may become seen as a sop to Europe. Placating the Europeans, of course, will be General Powell's job. Secretary-designate Rumsfeld may not want to see it done at the expense of a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons. And that would leave Messrs. Bush and Cheney presiding over some interesting conversations.