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Why Americans Shrug Over Weapons Treaty

Back-room deals and last-minute Clinton push may shape tomorrow's Senate vote on key pact.

The Senate's long-delayed vote tomorrow on US participation in a global chemical weapons ban culminates one of the most high-stakes foreign policy battles of the Clinton presidency.

In the weeks leading up to the debate that opens today, supporters and opponents have enlisted squads of former generals and statesmen to endorse their stands, and dueled in congressional hearings and op-ed pages.

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Last Sunday alone, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright plugged the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in interviews with seven local TV stations across the US before doing it again in a joint appearance with Defense Secretary William Cohen on network TV.

But for all the energy the sides have expended, the CWC vote appears to interest relatively few ordinary Americans.

Despite the treaty's far-reaching consequences for US security, global stature, and thousands of chemical-industry jobs, the outcome is being shaped by political bargain-making and the jousting of rival foreign policy elites.

Take, for instance, the mail for Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana. Last week, Senator Lugar, the CWC's leading GOP supporter, received 25 letters from constituents on the treaty - all urged its defeat - while he received 2,465 letters and phone calls on a bill that would change the way the consumer price index is calculated.

"It's an inside deal in Washington rather than a grass-roots deal," says Jim Thurber, director of the Center for Presidential and Congressional Studies at American University here.

It was unclear on the eve of the vote if the CWC would garner the two-thirds majority needed for ratification. Already ratified by 74 countries, it goes into effect April 29. Unless the United States ratifies it by then, it will be excluded from the new United Nations organization that will enforce compliance.

Experts say they believe the accord will ultimately scrape through, with holdouts swinging behind it to avoid being accused of denying protection to US troops from chemicals weapons attacks.

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At its heart, the battle over the pact has been ideological. On one side are conservative hard-liners, who say the accord's flaws include a weakening of US sovereignty and military might. On the other are moderates and liberals who argue the nation's security lies in cooperating with other states to solve common problems.

Experts say one reason for the lack of public input is the general loss of interest in foreign affairs that began with the end of the US-Soviet confrontation.

"Americans are detached from foreign policy ... and policymakers have enormous freedom of action in making foreign policy as long as they don't make ... terrible mistakes," says Jarol Manheim, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University here.

A second reason for the lack of popular input, experts say, is the way opponents and the administration have run their public-relations campaigns.

Critics have concentrated their efforts in two ways. Behind-the-scenes pressure to defeat the CWC has been coordinated by Frank Gaffney, a Reagan-era Pentagon official who heads the Center for Strategic Policy, a think tank endowed by conservatives and defense contractors.

The public face of opposition has been Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina. For months he refused to release the CWC from his panel in order to get concessions out of the Clinton administration. They included a long-sought consolidation of foreign policy agencies.

The White House balked at Senator Helms's demands, setting the stage for the floor fight in the Senate that begins today.

Clinton, experts say, waited too long to launch his public- outreach drive. In contrast to Clinton's appeal for ratification in 1993 of the North American Free-Trade Zone, the CWC drive lacked the kind of strategy and behind-the-scenes methods used in modern political races, such as polling and ads, experts say.

Most important, they say, Clinton failed to do lobbying himself and relied on surrogates like Ms. Albright.

"We've seen a lot of hot air, but not the kind of strategic manipulation of public opinion that sometimes happens when somebody wants to sell a policy," says Dr. Manheim.

Experts say that if he loses the ratification vote, Clinton will have himself to blame. In addition to tarnishing US global leadership, rejection of the pact will subject the US chemical industry to a ban on doing business in much of the world, raising the prospect of $60 billion in lost annual revenues and massive job cuts.

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