Swords vs. Shields: A Major Nuclear-Arms Deal Would Be a Key Legacy for Clinton. but He's Up against the Russians-And Jesse Helms

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, May 8, 2000 | Go to article overview

Swords vs. Shields: A Major Nuclear-Arms Deal Would Be a Key Legacy for Clinton. but He's Up against the Russians-And Jesse Helms


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


They've unofficially banned the word "legacy" around the White House. Apparently it was irritating President Bill Clinton, and with good reason. A strong economy is not a legacy in the traditional sense; it's too evanescent for the history books. (Ask Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.) The Clinton administration can boast of dozens of small and medium-size accomplishments, some of which will loom larger over time. But big landmarks--like a major arms-control agreement--have proved elusive.

Arms control. It has a musty feel. Very '80. Now it's back, and at a pivotal point. Clinton wants a major deal when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month, and last week administration officials were feverishly negotiating to lay the groundwork for one. Specifically, Clinton hopes to win Russian concessions to allow the United States to build a limited missile-defense system--perhaps in return for deep cuts in nuclear arsenals. But Sen. Jesse Helms, who runs foreign policy for the Republicans, won't hear of it. Any new Clinton deal would be "dead on arrival," Helms warned last week in a speech that was scathing even by the standards of the gentleman from North Carolina: "So, Mr. Clinton is in search of a legacy," Helms declared from the Senate floor. "La-di-da. He already has one."

The Clinton-Helms feud is only a sideshow to a far more consequential debate with the Russians and much of the rest of the world. Washington--the Clintonites, as well as Helms and his Republican allies--no longer seems terribly worried about a massive nuclear first strike by Moscow. It is more concerned about a potential new missile threat from rogue states like North Korea, Libya, Iraq and Iran--which, according to The New York Times, Al Gore's foreign-policy adviser, Leon Fuerth, privately calls "giant zits" on the world body politic. The Clinton administration hopes to build a missile-defense system that would protect the United States from the sort of small-scale nuke attack that a madman in Pyongyang or Tehran might, one day, be able to launch. To do that, however, means changing one of the cornerstones of nuclear detente, the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty signed with Moscow in 1972. (Conservatives want to scrap the treaty altogether.) "We have to convince [the Russians] that the threat is real, and that our [missile defense] system couldn't be used against them," says John Holum,the president's senior adviser on arms control.

Time is running out for Clinton. After one more test next month, the president must decide whether to begin construction of 100 missile "interceptors" in Alaska. Clinton is determined to move ahead, largely because of new intelligence that administration officials (including the most dovish) believe confirms that North Korea is within five years of developing an ICBM that could hit the United States. The Alaska system would take about five years to complete. Ergo, a consensus in Washington to get cracking, even if there's no real evidence yet that either North Korea's missiles--or American antimissiles--would work. Terrorism may be a more immediate threat, but the focus in national-security circles has shifted to these long-range nukes in the hands of rogue-state kooks. If they built them, and we had no defense, they could blackmail us. Or so the theory goes.

Enter Putin, the Russian fox. Ahead of the summit with Clinton planned for June, Putin has shown the world that he's prepared to deliver on key nuclear issues. Last month he got the Russian Parliament to stop bickering and finally ratify START II, which commits the United States and Russia to reduce their strategic nukes to roughly 3,500 each by 2007. He later won ratification in the lower house of the same Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty rejected by the U.S. Senate last year. Yet Putin has also bluntly warned that he will summarily end all arms control if the United States doesn't abandon its plans to develop missile defense. …

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