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03 November 2001

Lowry on Arms Control

As someone who has long opposed the ABM Treaty and thinks we should withdraw from it outright, I am sympathetic to the overall thrust of Rich Lowry's latest NRO column. Furthermore, as a longtime opponent of the "arms control" mentality (this notion that agreements can magically end wars and make the world a happy place -- note just how effective various agreements on chemical and biological warfare have been at doing just that lately!), I certainly am also sympathetic to Lowry's notion that arms control all too often is an end in itself. Those caveats aside, I really dislike the way Rich Lowry mangles the whole notion of arms control in his column.

Lowry suggests that, essentially, the parties to the ABM Treaty are going to get together, and come up with a new agreement that violates it:

Press reports tell us that the administration is working on a deal with the Russians that would allow us to go ahead with testing prohibited by the ABM treaty. The problem is that there is no provision in the treaty that allows its signatories to violate it by mutual consent.

This is hyperbole, pure and simple, and either reflects Lowry's misunderstanding of arms control (ignorance) or is a deliberate misrepresentation (dishonesty).

The nature of arms control agreements is such that parties put together side agreements frequently, in the form of common understandings, mutual agreements, memoranda of understanding, and unilateral statements. The ABM Treaty is no exception, as this page illustrates, although the ABM Treaty probably has fewer of these sorts of statements than many arms control agreements. Often, these side agreements come about because one party to an agreement objects to something the other party would like to do, and the agreement is ambiguous (for example, there is serious disagreement over the extent of testing permitted under ABM; that is a legitimate matter to discuss if one wants to preserve the agreement); sometimes, the agreements are to amend minor provisions of the treaty (which does raise an interesting constitutional issue about the validity of the treaty, given the Senate role in treaties and the overall Congressional role in Executive Agreements). The goal usually is not simply to rewrite the treaty, as Lowry suggests.

I don't think Lowry is ignorant of the arms control process, although that is a possible conclusion from his article. Rather, I think he deliberately painted with broad strokes to obliterate what is, in my view, a legitimate argument in favor of revising the ABM Treaty if possible, which is: The U.S. is trying to maintain an anti-terror effort for many more months, maybe even years, that will be made much easier by Russian cooperation, and if we can negotiate a way to do the testing we need under the current agreement, it will be helpful in terms of world and Russian opinion to do so.

I don't AGREE with that view, as I tend to Lowry's notion that we should withdraw from the ABM Treaty as soon as it hinders our missile-defense testing effort -- in other words, now. Arms control bureaucracies have a way of allowing such agreements to be an end in themselves, and the longer an agreement that hinders American security is allowed to stay on the books (never mind the legitimacy conferred), the harder it is ever to withdraw.

But I don't agree with Lowry's rhetorical approach. Both of these views are legitimate, and should be debated. We should refrain from representing the other point of view as somehow dishonest and illegitimate, because it's neither of those. And Rich Lowry really ought to refrain from giving Condoleezza Rice condescending advice on arms control. It just makes him look silly, which I don't think he is.

[Posted @ 10:30 AM CST]

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