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NATO's chemical dilemma

IT now appears that the recent Tokyo summit provided President Reagan with an opportunity to gain allied support not only for the US position on international terrorism, nuclear accidents, and trade, but also on chemical weapons. The President apparently persuaded West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to support American production of new chemical weapons at two recent NATO meetings in return for the eventual removal of existing US chemical stock from German soil. This agreement may serve each leader's short-term domestic interests, but it will be a disaster for NATO's long-term security interests. In December 1985, the US Congress stipulated that the Pentagon could not begin to produce binary chemical munitions until, among other things, NATO's North Atlantic Council had concurred with US plans for the production of these new chemical weapons, and NATO's supreme allied commander had developed contingency plans for the deployment of these munitions to the European theater. Congress insisted upon these conditions because it believed that America's allies had an obligation to share both the political and the military burdens of new chemical weapons production.

On May 22, NATO's Defense Planning Committee endorsed the American chemical production plans, despite strong opposition from several NATO member states (including Norway, Holland, and Denmark). Chancellor Kohl's support for the binary program was the decisive factor in this approval of the US chemical weapons plan. This controversial decision by NATO's defense ministers thus brings the US one step closer to the production of new chemical weapons.

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Memories of the use of poison gas at Ypres and on other battlefields during World War I have faded slowly in Europe. Discussions of US plans to produce binary chemical munitions and their possible deployment on European soil have consequently been highly controversial in many allied countries. Nowhere is this more true than in Germany, the only NATO country where US chemical weapons are now stored, and where, because of simple geography, the vast majority of casualties from the use of such weapons would occur. Chancellor Kohl's success in obtaining a promise from President Reagan to withdraw all of these chemical munitions will therefore be greeted with great enthusiasm in the Federal Republic.

Yet, if the US does carry out its side of the Tokyo bargain and removes its existing chemical stocks from West Germany by 1992, NATO will be left in the extraordinary position of having no US chemical weapons on European soil -- a dramatic weakening of its chemical deterrent posture. In the past, both Reagan and Kohl have opposed the various proposals for a chemical weapons-free zone in Central Europe. But now they have agreed to carry out a unilateral withdrawal of US chemical weapons from Western Europe without obtaining the corresponding withdrawal of Soviet chemical weapons from Eastern Europe that such a zone would require. In the final analysis, both leaders have agreed to nothing less than unilateral chemical disarmament.

Of course, Chancellor Kohl also promised at the Tokyo summit to consider accepting binary deployments in a crisis situation. But the West Germans have the final word on whether chemical weapons will be deployed in their country. In a crisis, they could very well refuse to accept these weapons, on grounds that such a step would be highly provocative. But even if the West Germans, or any other NATO member, were willing to take the binaries in a crisis situation, the US would be hard pressed physically to move the chemical munitions across the Atlantic, given the sorry state of its sea- and airlift capabilities.

When looked at closely, it is clear that the Reagan-Kohl agreement on chemical weapons can only produce trouble for the US, West Germany, and all of NATO. It is not too late for both leaders to extricate themselves from the bad bargain they made in Tokyo. Mr. Reagan should retract his ill-considered promise to remove existing US chemical weapons from West Germany, even at the price of losing Chancellor Kohl's continued support for the US chemical warfare program. To do otherwise is to engage in unilateral chemical disarmament and thus severely damage a key aspect of NATO's deterrent posture.

Elisa D. Harris is a fellow at Harvard University's Center for Science and International Affairs.

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