Posted on October 18, 1999 in Washington Watch

It is quite normal that in a presidential election year, partisan politicking replaces legislating in Washington. What is unusual is that this is occurring more than one year before the elections and that it is affecting the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

The climate is so heated in Washington and the division between the parties is so great, that the Republican-led Senate did not hesitate last week to deliver a major blow to the Democratic President on the issue of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

While some analysts have faulted both sides for the Senate’s negative vote, the best alternative they could propose was that the CTBT not have been voted on at all. The treaty’s defeat was certain, because a hard core group within the Senate has opposed any new arms control agreements and because Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott feared losing support among this group if he made any compromise deal with the White House. Lott is still chaffing from criticism he received for working with the Administration to secure passage of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997.

Lott’s opposition to deal-making on the CTBT, therefore, presented the White House with only two alternatives–withdraw the treaty from consideration by the Senate for at least one and one-half years, or present it for a vote and see it be defeated.

Given the strong opposition of some Republicans to the treaty and arms control in general, it was not possible that the CTBT would be approved or that the issues raised by the treaty’s defeat not be a highly charged partisan affair.

While advocates of the CTBT point to the treaty’s safeguards and to the long-term benefits of ending all nuclear testing, the treaty’s Republican critics have warned of the compact’s weaknesses and of the threats to U.S. security.

The treaty, as is currently stands, provides for:

    ·A worldwide prohibition of all testing of nuclear explosions;

    ·The establishment of worldwide monitoring stations to verify compliance; and

    ·Inspections of any suspicious test sites.

Supporters of the treaty insist that the CTBT’s monitoring provisions and its worldwide ban requirement will “buttress non-proliferation” and create a mechanism that will insure that no new nuclear development take place.

The Republican opponents of CTBT, however, have long opposed arms control, as a strategy and a concept, even when they have voted for some past treaties. The argued that ratification of the CTBT would only weaken the United States and would not guarantee that the “rogue regimes” would be deterred from developing new weapons. One analyst described the conservative argument as fearing “that the test ban treaty is a dangerous first step toward weakening America’s nuclear deterrent and preventing the United States from building newer and deadlier weapons in the future.”

These critics have attacked the supporters of the treaty as “Polyannas” who “naively believe that arms control can create a safer world.”

Even with these extremely divergent views, in the past, the two parties have found ways to achieve compromise–especially when the eyes of the world were on Washington and U.S. leadership was at stake. But in the heated partisan climate of the 2000 elections, no such bipartisan cooperation could be found.

In acknowledging the partisan nature of his defeat, President Clinton responded in kind, blasting Republicans for what he termed “their recklessness”. In a press conference, the day after the Senate vote, the President accused the Republicans of threatening “America’s economic well-being and now its national security.” He continued, “Yesterday, hard-line Republicans irresponsibly forced a vote against the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. This was partisan politics of the worst kind, because it was so blatant, and because of the risks it poses to the safety of the American people and the world. … By this vote, the Senate majority has turned its back on 50 years of American leadership against the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”

For his part, Vice President Al Gore responded by presenting his first television commercial of the presidential campaign in which he states that “there is no greater challenge than stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.”

Texas Governor George W. Bush, who only last week attacked the Republican Congress for being too negative and too insensitive to the poor, supported this action by the Republican Senate. He termed the CTBT “flawed”–a position shared by other Republican contenders for the 2000 nomination.

And so it is that 14 months before the elections, this issue, like so many others, has become a matter for partisan debate–a debate that will only get sharper during the next year. In this environment little positive legislation will come forward and the ability of the Administration to pursue its agenda will be constrained–even on critical foreign and domestic policy matters.

For example, last month Congress passed a foreign aid budget eliminating the monies requested by the President to support implementation of the Wye Agreement. Congress has also, once again, shown little willingness to support payment of the large amount the United States owes to the United Nations.

This stinginess born either of an isolationist view held by some conservatives or, by partisan spite, will make the Administration’s further peacemaking efforts more difficult.

Still ahead will be a bruising battle over the budget with the President and Congress no where near an agreement and signs pointing to the possibility of a repeat of the 1995 shutdown of the government.

What is especially distressing is the extent to which this partisan rancor has frustrated the work of governance. As a result, public confidence in politics and politicians remains quite low–though, among those who do care, support is evenly divided between the two parties. The fact that about one-third of the electorate is alienated from politics all together has created openings for the “anti-politics” third party and independent efforts that have sprung up across the country. Pledging to end “business as usual” these efforts have won some support–but not provided any real change.

What is critical here, however, is that not only are Americans becoming alienated by the “game” of partisan politics–but a wary world is watching as much needed U.S. leadership on vital issues is being stymied and paralyzed by antics in Washington. It can only be hoped that world dismay and concern over the CTBT debacle, the United States’ UN debt and the failure of Congress to support other U.S. international commitments will shock some in Washington into shelving partisanship and behaving more responsibly.

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