Ha-ha-ha! The Republicans beat President Clinton — the Republicans beat President Clinton! And everyone said they couldn’t outfox him. Everyone said he’d got them into a box on the budget again and their leaders were too dim ever to get the best of Clinton. But they beat him! They made him crawl, he gave them everything they asked for, and then they beat him anyway. Ha-ha-ha!
And history will forever record that on the day after a coup d’état by the Pakistani military, the U.S. Senate voted to kill the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Let us pray that never again is this nation afflicted with such petty, vicious partisanship that the national interest — indeed, the best interest of all mankind — takes second place to the unspeakably tawdry gamesmanship of small-bore, fifth-rate politicians.
This was not just another disgusting episode in Washington. This is potentially catastrophic. The background: every president since Dwight Eisenhower has wanted a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. It has been a bipartisan foreign-policy goal for this country for more than forty years. In 1996, the culmination of years of effort by arms-control experts came when 153 countries signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. For the United States, the end of the Cold War made a test ban treaty even more urgent because the major threat to us no longer comes from the former Soviet Union, but rather from the increasingly likely possibility that nuclear arms from Russia will be scattered from hither to yon. It is quite clear that Russian organized crime, perhaps the most powerful force in that country, is willing to sell arms stolen from the state to absolutely anyone. Of the forty-four nations with nuclear capability, only three have not signed the treaty: India, Pakistan, and North Korea. India and Pakistan each tested nuclear weapons for the first time in May of last year, and North Korea has been testing ballistic missiles. Both India and Pakistan made it clear that their signing the treaty depends on whether the United States ratifies it. Their understandable attitude is that the Western powers have no business dictating to them something that the West is not willing to do itself.
Russia and China have also been holding off on ratifying the treaty, waiting to see if we would do it. Since India and Pakistan have fought three wars against each other in the past forty years, and there exists a livid hatred between the two, the chances of a nuclear war are now far higher than they ever were during the Cold War.
Clinton knew he couldn’t get the majority Republican Senate to ratify the treaty, so he wisely let it lie doggo for three years. Late this summer, some grandstanding Democrats, including Senator Byron Dorgan of South Dakota, decided to make some political hay out of Republican inaction on the treaty. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called that stupid bluff and raised it: the vote would be not just a procedural vote on whether to consider the treaty, but up or down on the treaty itself. The Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed the treaty; the heads of the national weapons labs endorsed the treaty; the country’s entire scientific establishment — including thirty-two Nobel laureates — endorsed the treaty. The prime ministers of France, Germany, and Great Britain took the unprecedented step of urging the Senate to ratify in a New York Times op-ed piece.
None of that made any difference to the Republicans, who saw a chance to beat Clinton. The debate was simply pathetic. Daniel Patrick Moynihan rose above himself to demonstrate what statesmanship actually means, but almost no one else followed suit. Robert Byrd of West Virginia was so disgusted at seeing an issue this important made into a political football that he voted “present” for the first time in his forty-one years in the Senate. It is never useful in politics to accuse people who don’t agree with you of being stupid — the point is to convince them.
It may be, as the Republicans suggest, that the treaty’s system — of placing several hundred sensors of the kind used to record earthquakes all around the world — could still miss some low-yield, underground testing. The treaty also provides for on-site inspections, but that too could be less than perfect, as we know from dealing with Iraq. No one ever claimed that this treaty would provide us with 100 percent security. But the Republican arguments are so weak that they’re embarrassing: “Trust, but verify.” That’s what the hundreds of monitoring stations (including more than thirty in Russia) and on-site inspections are for. The other argument is that ratifying the treaty would be “naive” because it would “lull us into a sense of security.” How does not ratifying the treaty help our security? In what way is not having several hundred monitoring stations around the world to detect nuclear testing helpful to our security? A coalition of retired Cold Warriors, C.I.A. retreads, and Henry Kissinger joined Jesse Helms in leading the opposition. It was so déjá vu, straight out of the fifties.
As though God had arranged a wake-up call for the Senate Republicans, the Pakistani military acted while the treaty was under consideration. One could hardly have asked for a clearer reminder of what the stakes are. History rarely provides an object lesson with such astonishing promptitude. Made no difference. After the vote, Republicans gathered around Trent Lott as though he were the winning quarterback in a football game. God grant that the next lesson of history concerning the gamesmanship on this treaty does not come soon.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her forthcoming book, with Observer editor Louis Dubose, is “Shrub: The Short and Happy Political Life of George W. Bush.” You may write to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.