You have to hand it to the Clinton team. Who else would be able to conduct a two-day summit meeting with the Russian leadership in which the United States made momentous concessions on virtually every front - and still have the conventional wisdom be that it was Russian President Boris Yeltsin whose clock got cleaned?
Partly this remarkable achievement is a credit to the Clinton administration's cynical manipulation of the press. The summit's concluding session and the accompanying blizzard of joint statements and fact sheets were timed to occur on Friday afternoon. Clinton and Co. have raised this practice to an art form, allowing them to dispense bad news at the one point in the week when the administration can be virtually guaranteed two days to put its unchallenged spin on events. By Monday morning, sufficient disinformation is in the system to minimize the danger that the facts will ever catch up.
Mostly, though, the effectiveness of President Clinton's sleight-of- hand is due to the paucity of serious analysis - or even attention - given these days to his conduct of American security policy. In the absence of such scrutiny, the initiatives agreed at the Helsinki summit promise to cost the United States dearly in terms of its long-term security interests, its ability to influence international events and its taxpayers' resources.
For example, the United States has agreed to pay through the nose for Russian acquiescence to the inevitable enlargement of NATO. The Alliance will be "transformed" into primarily a political and peacekeeping organization. New members will be second-class citizens operating under different guidelines than the existing 16. Russia will be given by NATO members a special relationship likely to translate into a de facto veto over Alliance actions. And American taxpayers will be on the hook for billions in new, undisciplined, non-transparent economic subsidies for Russia.
Higher still, perhaps, is the price associated with the summiteers' handiwork on arms control. The Helsinki meeting was hardly the first in which an embattled American president sought to refurbish his reputation at home by reaching agreements calculated to impress the untutored with his statesmanship and his "commitment to peace." The recklessness evident in the accords reached on strategic offensive arms and missile defenses is arguably in a class by itself, however.
Mr. Clinton decided to give the Russians four additional years to complete the dismantling of the multiple-warheaded and heavy intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, weapons whose elimination by 2003 was supposed to be principal achievement of the START II Treaty. Not to worry though. The administration would have us believe these missiles are not targeted at our cities - a statement it persists in making (the Helsinki fact sheet is the 131st time by some estimates) in the absenceof any proof.
To be sure, the Helsinki framework agreement also promises to "deactivate" these systems by removing their warheads or "taking other jointly agreed steps by Dec. 21, 2003." The problem is that, if past practice is any guide, U.S. warheads will be irreversibly removed, but the Russians will insist that their forces undergo some much less verifiable, effective and permanent "deactivation step."
President Clinton has also made a number of other portentous concessions without congressional consultation - or, apparently, much forethought. For example, he has committed the United States to levels of strategic arms (2,000 to 2,500 deployed warheads) that are so low as to make it problematic to maintain an effective nuclear Triad essential to robust deterrence. He has agreed to the destruction of nuclear warheads, not just delivery systems,even though - thanks to his denuclearization policies - the United States will have nothing like the Russians' capability to manufacture new ones should the need arise. And he has agreed to negotiate unspecified "measures" on nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles, a long-standing Soviet-Russian demand resisted by every previous U.S. administration and fraught with peril for the U.S. Navy's operational flexibility and security.
Mr. Clinton has, moreover, reaffirmed his fealty to an obsolete Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that prevents the United States from effectively protecting its people against missile attack, whether from China, North Korea, Libya or anyplace else. Insisting that this treaty is the "cornerstone of strategic stability ' Mr. Clinton promised to expand the ABM Meaty so as to impose new limits on the most promising American systems not currently covered by that accord - fast-flying defenses against shorter-range (or "theater") missiles.
Mr. Clinton also agreed to ban altogether space-based theater missile defenses. This ban extends even to the "development" of such defenses - a far more restrictive arrangement even than that governing strategic anti-missile systems based in space. The president pledged not to develop, test or deploy futuristic "components" (such as lasers) that could substitute for space-based interceptor missiles.
In making such commitments, the Clinton team avers that they are consistent with current U.S. "plans." Since the administration has demonstrated a palpable reluctance to provide missile defense programs with the sort of priority and funding required for near-term deployment, however, these modest plans would appear to be a bad guide for agreeing to permanent limitations. In any event, why would the United States want to impose arbitrary constraints on the future performance of defensive systems?
Worse yet, you can bet that the Russians will try to use the broadly worded prohibition on "components based - on other physical principles" to block at least one promising TMD program that is in the "plans" - the Air Force's high-priority airborne anti-missile laser program. It will be an ignominious irony if, in its blind pursuit of "clarification" of the ABM Treaty's limitations, the Clinton administration winds up creating new ambiguities that impinge still further upon critical American defense options.
It is important to note that, whereas the U.S. side formally declared that it would submit the date change on START II to the Senate for its advice and consent, no such commitment was made with respect to agreed, and far more momentous, changes concerning the scope and signatories to the ABM Treaty. This is presumably because the White' House believes the latter amendments would not pass muster on Capitol Hill - a prospect underscored by not one, but two, letters sent to the president by the House Republican leadership last week vehemently opposing expansion of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
If senators are unhappy with the Clintonistas' highhandedness with respect to arms control, they may have an early opportunity to express it. One other Helsinki item was to announce the two presidents' determination to "expedite ratification" of the Chemical Weapons Convention. This is expected to result in even greater pressure on the Senate to rubber-stamp this fatally flawed treaty, perhaps by as early as mid-April.
The Chemical Weapons Convention should be rejected on its merits -or, more precisely, its lack of merit. In the wake of the Helsinki summit, however, the Senate's refusal to agree to this unverifiable, unenforceable and ineffectual treaty would also have another, very desirable effect: It would demonstrate unmistakably that the Clinton administration cannot expect blithely to agree to international deals that - compromise national security and interests and get away with it.
Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is the director of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.