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From Dumdums to Nerve Gas

Arms control, once out of favor and derided as obsolete, has once again made the front pages of America's newspapers. In her confirmation hearings and first public appearances as secretary of state, Madeleine Albright emphasized the importance of early Senate ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Despite Sen. Jesse Helms's well-publicized skepticism about the CWC and the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, the Senate is expected to take up ratification of both treaties this year.

Before rejecting arms control as a liberal plaything, the Senate should pause and think back to the medevacs of Vietnam and the stretcher bearers of Guadalcanal, and recall that had it not been for an agreement that was initially worth no more than the paper it was written on, many of these wounded would have been dead. Thousands of lives have probably been saved because of the 1899 Hague Declaration dealing with inhumane weapons, an arms control agreement that can be neither verified nor enforced. Despite the lack of formal legal frameworks for its implementation, it has generally been observed - even by Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein.

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A key provision of the Hague declaration is the ban on soft-nosed or dumdum bullets. These were outlawed because the injuries they inflicted were seen as too grievous and cruel. Although easy to manufacture, this type of bullet has been used extremely rarely and has not been used by regular armies as standard issue even among some of the most evil regimes the world has known. In addition to saving lives in wars from World War I to the present, this agreement has also saved lives on American streets. The daily toll in American cities from handguns would be far higher if street thugs found that soft-nosed bullets could be had as standard supply, rather than as a special type of ammunition more difficult to obtain and more expensive.

The American families that received a wounded veteran to care for rather than a telegram to weep over stand as living proof of the importance of arms control. It has become fashionable to deride all international attempts to control weapons, be they chemical, nuclear, biological, or conventional. Skeptics argue that only the good guys (us) abide by these agreements and that we can never tell if anyone cheats.

Yet compliance with landmark treaties such as SALT I (negotiated by the Nixon administration) and the Treaty on Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces and START I (treaties concluded during the Reagan and Bush administrations) has been good, and our security was assured at lower cost because of these agreements. The key question, then as now, is whether we are better off with or without these agreements. History suggests that arms control has served us well and should not be abandoned.

Nevertheless, the obstacles are considerable. Imagine if a treaty banning dumdum bullets were before today's Senate. We would be told that American troops would be at a disadvantage because their adversaries would produce these bullets illegally and would slaughter our soldiers with them. Anyone who argued in favor of the treaty would be dismissed as selling out front-line soldiers. We would be told that dictators would never abide by the agreement, and the treaty would fall amid cries of derision from influential columnists.

As the Senate considers ratification of George Bush's Chemical Weapons Convention and Bill Clinton's Nuclear Test Ban, senators should keep these lessons in mind. We are better off with these treaties than without them. We will be more secure, and at lower cost to the American taxpayer.

* Daniel T. Plesch and Natalie J. Goldring are director and deputy director of the British American Security Information Council, an independent research organization based in London and Washington.

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