Bill Clinton was mighty upset when the Senate shot down his Nuclear
Test Ban Treaty. He pulled out the rhetorical big guns, warning that
partisan politics was creating a “new isolationism.” Meanwhile, Trent
Lott protested that the vote had nothing to do with politics. He is for
banning nuclear tests in principle, he said, but the treaty was badly
Let’s just say, for sake of argument, that it was shot down
for political reasons. Say it was a crude turf war: Congress versus the
president. The Senate merely wanted to humiliate the president, and
declare to the world that Clinton is not a dictator. What would be wrong
with that? Nothing at all. In fact, that would be the highest and
noblest motivation for rejecting the treaty.
For 50 years, there’s been an assumption that foreign policy and
treaty making are the sole province of the presidency. Clinton has taken
every advantage of this notion, spreading mayhem here and yon, butting
in on civil conflicts that don’t concern him, wrecking an African
launching bombs at TV stations, vegetable markets, and people’s
apartments in Serbia, running an ongoing, genocidal war against Iraq —
all without bothering to check with Congress.
Generally the Republicans have deferred to this nonsense, believing
that while it is fine to challenge Clinton on health care, the budget
and his girlfriends, it is unpatriotic to question his judgment outside
the borders, no matter how much property is destroyed or how many
Nonsense. The Congress has a moral obligation to stop a president who
makes the Pentagon the headquarters of Bombs Without Borders. If they
gave a Nobel Prize for War, Clinton would certainly be a meritorious
recipient. It is long past time for the Republicans to wonder if this
approach is the best one.
But would this be the dread “isolationism”? For Clinton,
“isolationism” is the refusal of Congress to give him all power in
foreign policy. This is clear from his wild statements at his now-famous
press conference. He says that it’s isolation when Congress refuses to
fund the U.N., hand out foreign
aid, or “adopt our proposals to do our part to stem the tide of global
warming, even though these proposals plainly would create American
This is patently false. No one knows precisely how bad the Kyoto
treaty would be for the economy. Certainly it would set back industrial
civilization as we know it and subject us all to totalitarian regulatory
control. Even Clinton’s own Department of Energy warns that it might
cause soaring energy costs and plunging productivity. If the Senate’s
rejection of the Nuclear Test Ban suggests that Kyoto is going nowhere,
that’s all to the good.
As for his fear about international proliferation of nuclear weapons,
let’s think about this for a moment. Why would a country want to acquire
and test nuclear weapons? They are expensive and dangerous, and most
poor countries can’t afford them. The Clinton administration assumes
that such a country wants to become a menace and threaten its neighbors.
Maybe it wants to point
bombs at the U.S. and threaten our well being.
But this is just nationalist myopia. The main reason a country like
Pakistan, China, India, or any other in the world would want to develop
a nuclear stockpile is to deter an external threat. And which government
in the world is perceived as most threatening?
Here’s a few hints. Which government owns the lion’s share of nuclear
weapons, preens as the world’s only superpower, keeps its troops in 100
countries, runs covert operations in all the rest, launches undeclared
bombing attacks on sovereign foreign nations, and is the sole government
the history of the world to actually use nuclear weapons, and even
invented the vile things in the first place?
Clinton is the head of that government, and by using its power to
reduce non-compliant nations to rubble, he has, like his predecessor,
done much to increase the desire on the part of foreign nations to
acquire nuclear weapons. As the bombs rained down on Serbia, for
example, its neighbors realized that the U.S. would have been much more
reticent if Milosovic had had his finger on the button.
If Clinton were really interested in inspiring foreign countries
toward nuclear disarmament, toward relaxing their unrelenting fear that
Clinton’s State Department may decide to bomb their capital in the
middle of the night, he might consider giving isolationism a chance. The
advantage of the “new isolationism” is that it holds out the prospect of
isolating us and the rest of the world from the destructive intentions
and actions of the U.S. empire.
But doesn’t the rejection of the treaty further alarm some foreign
nations about the intentions of the U.S.? No, since it is widely assumed
that the U.S. regards treaties as binding on every country but itself.
What would really curb the U.S. imperial appetite is not another
treaty, but diminishing the power of the presidency. Only then will the
executive state be hindered in purporting to make foreign policy
decisions on behalf of the entire country, and running roughshod over
everyone else’s political sovereignty.
You don’t even have to get into the details of the Test Ban Treaty to
understand this. The treaty itself would not have changed U.S. behavior,
since both political parties already claim to be against testing.
Moreover, Clinton’s own case for the treaty had nothing to do with how
it would affect
U.S. policy: he focused entirely on the supposed ability of the U.S. to
control proliferation, which is to say, competition, abroad.
Despite all the rhetoric, then, politics is by far the best grounds
on which to reject the treaty. One purpose of Congress, and the Senate
in particular, is to provide a counterweight to the imperial presidency.
It’s about time the Congress started exercising its responsibility.