The Unthinkable


When the Republican majority in the Senate voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on October 13, President Clinton called their act "partisanship at its worst." The Washington Post agreed, charging that the vote was "the product of short-term domestic political calculation." The New York Times, too, saw party interest at work: The vote, it editorialized, amounted to "a narrow and misguided show of partisanship." Evidence for this view was not hard to find. Two off-the-cuff comments by Republicans sum up the case.

The first comment pertained to "the unthinkable"-a phrase that, ever since the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn titled a book Thinking About the Unthinkable in the sixties, has been a kind of shorthand for nuclear danger. During the Senate debate, John Czwartacki-an aide to majority leader Trent Lott-found occasion to say it would be "unthinkable." Well, what would be unthinkable? Would it be nuclear war in South Asia, where the military forces of nuclear-armed Pakistan have just seized power from the civilian government and where, according to Newsweek, Pakistan and India are "weaponizing" their bombs-that is, mounting them on delivery vehicles? Would it be the use by terrorists of a "loose nuke" against one of the world's great cities? Would it be that ten, or twenty, or thirty additional nations, following the example of the United States, would see fit to build and test nuclear arsenals? Would it be accidental war with Russia, whose deteriorating arsenal of some 7,000 strategic warheads is still on hairtrigger alert? It was none of these. The thing Czwartacki found unthinkable was the danger that a few Republican senators might join with Democrats to vote for a procedural motion against Lott and in favor of postponement of the vote on the treaty-a course of action favored in a signed letter by sixty-two members of the Senate. What was unthinkable in this debate, in other words, was the slightest breach in Republican Party discipline. It did not happen, and the treaty went down to defeat.

The second comment came in the closing speech of the cursory debate in the Senate. The speaker was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, who had bottled the treaty up in his committee for two years, then sprung it on the Senate only when its certain defeat had been clandestinely arranged. He was discussing the joint appeal by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, in which they stated that "we have to face the stark truth that nuclear proliferation remains the major threat to world safety" and begged the Senate to ratify the treaty. These political leaders of the United States' closest allies, Helms opined, were "three people who knew nothing about the United States"-a phrase that managed to insult the three allied statesmen twice in a single phrase, first by accusing them of ignorance, second by implying that the test ban treaty would affect the interests of the United States alone. Their appeal, he alleged, was the mere product of pressure exerted by Clinton (a third insult), leading Blair, as Helms put it on the Senate floor, to say to Clinton, "Oh yes, I'll do that. And give Monica my regards." For a moment, it was hard to believe that one had heard him correctly. Had the name of Monica Lewinsky actually been dragged into the closing minutes of a debate about the safety of the human race from nuclear destruction? What did it mean? Did Helms want us all to burn up in nuclear fire as punishment for our tolerance of Clinton's loose behavior?

The similarities between the way the majority handled the test ban vote and the way it handled impeachment earlier in the year are in fact striking. Both causes were supported only by Republicans. Both defied American as well as world opinion. In both contests, Republicans on the far right imposed party discipline over the less extreme elements of the party. At every key juncture in the impeachment-before the House voted articles of impeachment and before the Senate called witnesses, for example-observers surmised that "moderates" in the Republican Party might prevail over their radical-right-wing colleagues to bring the trial to a halt, but they never did. …

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