Michael KreponHow Bob Dole Rescued the Chemical Weapons Convention

Verse of the week:

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson,

Bob Dole’s obituaries recount many of his accomplishments. They do not include how he rescued the Chemical Weapons Convention for President Bill Clinton. It’s a mere detail in a life well lived, but one worthy of acknowledgement. 

Negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to ban the production, possession and use of chemical weapons became surprisingly real during the Reagan administration. Vice President George H.W. Bush served as Reagan’s point person to abolish these weapons, helping to offset the two votes he cast to break ties in the Senate over producing a new generation of nerve gas weapons called “binaries.”

These weapons weren’t going to be mass produced. No U.S. company would agree to make them and interest in nerve agents within the Pentagon barely had a pulse. The program was kept alive by incantations of deterrence — to prevent use, the United States needed to threaten use. The diplomatic challenge was to create a global norm of abolition to align with U.S. preferences. Without norms, there are no norm breakers. With norms, there are fewer of them.

When Bush became President, he kept pressing for the CWC and, with Mikhail Gorbachev as a willing partner, made considerable headway. The Bush administration completed these negotiations shortly before Clinton took office.

Given the CWC’s Republican lineage, leaving the golf ball on the green so close to the cup, you might think that securing the two-thirds vote necessary in the Senate would be a “gimme” for Clinton. Not so. Clinton didn’t move quickly to secure the Senate’s consent. His procrastination cost him the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and nearly cost him the CWC. 

Clinton had many admirable traits. My thumbnail sketch of him in Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace reads as follows:

He was a preternaturally gifted, instinctual politician, equally adept at connecting with blue-collar workers as with heads of state. His homespun assessments of world leaders and events masked a keen analytical bent. He was, as Leon Panetta described him, “ravenously intelligent,” with an undisciplined, perpetually busy, calculating mind.

Clinton also had some not very admirable traits, one of which was elevated by Republican lawmakers into an impeachable offense. His lack of discipline also applied to the policy realm. Clinton was a procrastinator. He was the classmate whose attention was in many places at once, but who could spend an all-nighter and then ace the final exam.

Some reasons for delay in pursuing ratification of the CWC were understandable. Clinton had higher arms control priorities, beginning with the denuclearization of Kazakhstan and Ukraine, thereby allowing Bush’s first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to enter into force.

Other reasons for delay were avoidable. No senior official provided impetus for the CWC’s ratification. This responsibility belonged to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, a semi-autonomous entity housed in and mostly subordinate to the State Department. But ACDA was leaderless during most of Clinton’s first year in office.

The choice facing the incoming administration was straightforward: to revitalize ACDA, most usefully by focusing on nonproliferation and verification, or to merge its functions with those of the State Department, where arms control was likely to take a back seat to mending diplomatic fences. 

The pros and cons had been kicked around by think tanks and by the State Department’s Inspector General’s office prior to Clinton’s arrival. Clinton’s transition team proposed revitalization, but the new President didn’t make a command decision. ACDA remained in limbo until Muriel Humphrey, the widow of the Senator most responsible for ACDA’s creation, Hubert Humphrey, personally intervened with Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Christopher then ordered his staff to cease and desist.

ACDA’s new director finally came on board in late November, 1993. Only then was the paperwork transmitted from the executive branch to the  Senate Foreign Relations Committee to serve as a basis for hearings on the CWC. The easiest year for ratification came and went.

Clinton’s first term was marked by significant achievements. Besides START I, Clinton gave the green light to wide-ranging “lab to lab” programs to help prevent “loose nukes” in the former Soviet Union, secured the indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and advanced prospects for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Finally, in Clinton’s fourth year in office, it was time to push for the Senate’s consent to ratify the CWC.

Meanwhile, prospects for ratification became more difficult, as Republicans gained control of the House and Senate in the 1994 mid-term elections. Trent Lott was the new Majority Leader and Jesse Helms was now Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The point person for ratification on the National Security Council staff was Bob Bell, who previously worked as a Senate staffer for Sam Nunn. Since a super-majority vote was needed, that meant dealing with Helms, who directed Marshall Billingslea to haggle with Bell. Billingslea would later become Donald Trump’s emissary for nuclear talks with Russia that started late and went nowhere. 

The review process for the CWC became a proving ground for tactical maneuvers to delay and block treaty ratification. The master of this game was Jon Kyl, a Republican Senator from Arizona who looked askance at treaties championed by Democratic presidents. For Kyl and those in his camp, the CWC’s lineage to Reagan and Bush was a non-factor since the treaty now belonged to Bill Clinton.

Clinton didn’t have the sixty-seven votes necessary for ratification. Part of the reason was that his Republican opponent that fall, Bob Dole, was persuaded not to give the incumbent an election-year legislative victory. After failing to round up the votes, the Clinton White House asked Majority Leader Lott to temporarily set aside the CWC, and Lott complied. (A very different result occurred three years later for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but that’s another story.)

After winning re-election, Clinton was obliged to try again, as the threshold for the CWC’s entry into force — sixty-five states depositing their instruments of ratification — had been reached. The Convention would take effect on April 29, 1997. If the United States wasn’t among the initial tranche of ratifiers, its chemical industry would be penalized, and U.S. international standing would take a significant hit.

Some Bush administration officials, most notably James Baker, were strongly in support of ratification. Three former Secretaries of Defense — Donald Rumsfeld, Caspar Weinberger, and James Schlesinger — led the opposition, arguing that the CWC would impose harsh burdens on industry, and that the Convention would not be universally respected. The Chemical Manufacturers Association strongly supported ratification.

Clinton still couldn’t find sixty-seven confirmed votes. The Republican Party was changing dramatically. Internationally-minded Senators were being replaced by treaty skeptics. On the House side, Republicans led by Newt Gingrich were beginning to practice brutishly partisan politics. 

Lott wouldn’t commit to vote in favor of ratification, and Helms wouldn’t consent to floor votes unless Clinton agreed to muffle ACDA’s voice by merging it into State. Clinton and his floor manager on the Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, reluctantly agreed to Helms’s demand.

On April 23, 1997 — the proverbial night before the final exam — the Clinton White House scheduled one last event to push for the CWC’s ratification. Clinton badly needed a headliner, a notable Republican who had not already declared for the CWC, and he didn’t have one.

A week earlier, Bob Bell appeared on C-SPAN to rebut the arguments employed by those opposed to the CWC’s ratification. Bob Dole happened to be watching, and told a Republican colleague that Bell made a good deal of sense. The White House followed up, with Bell briefing Dole on April 20th.  Dole could be a sharply partisan warrior, but having lost his try for the presidency, there was no longer a need to play this role on the CWC. Bell reported back Dole’s reaction to his briefing: “That sounds convincing to me.” 

There the matter lay until thirty minutes before the White House event. That’s when Clinton’s National Security Adviser Sandy Berger rather abruptly instructed Bell to try to reach Dole to ask him to be Clinton’s headliner. Bell was patched through to Dole in his car en route to a scheduled meeting. Dole agreed and asked his driver to head to the White House instead. 

Lott and the undecided Republican Senators got off the fence and voted “yea.” Thanks to Bob Dole, the ratification vote was seventy-four in favor and twenty-six opposed. 


  1. E. Rhym (History)

    Interesting policymaking and legislative history.

    It’s also interesting to note that despite whatever benefits one might attribute to the CWC, it remains essentially another largely unenforced and unenforceable arms control agreement — in the sense it is not enforced by its own terms.

    Point-in-fact: no Party to the the Treaty has ever exercised the CWC Treaty right to conduct a short-notice, “Challenge Inspection” of another Party. For to do so would risk opening the floodgates to rampant requests–which would, predictably, likely lead to the collapse of the gentlemen’s agreement not to pursue CW (at least not openly).

    Such is the way of ink-colored arms control in practice . . .