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NATO Vexed by U.S. Plans for Nerve Gas

June 22, 1986|Enrico Jacchia | Enrico Jacchia is director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the Free University of Rome.

ROME — America's allies in Europe appear to be as confused as they are menaced about the prospects of deploying a new generation of U.S. chemical weapons.

U.S. Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, the supreme allied commander in Europe, now has a go-ahead to draft a plan for deploying new chemical weapons in case of crisis or conflict in North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries in Central Europe, the Mediterranean and Scandinavia.

The best guess is that when the European allies get the plan, they will file it and take no further action. Massive confusion followed the NATO defense ministers' meeting at Brussels in late May, leaving Europeans wondering whether the new weapons to be produced in the United States--binary nerve gas, made of two chemicals that are safe alone but lethal when combined--will be stored in the European military regions, deployed in them and, in either case, under what conditions.

Confusion prevents, for the moment, Europe's "anti-chemical" activists from starting a new campaign, but this respite will not last long.

When the U.S. Congress appropriated funds for nerve gas bombs and shells last December--ending a 17-year moratorium on such production--the legislators had trouble deciding what conditions should be attached for European cooperation. In the original House authorization bill, the allies were asked to declare willingness to deploy such weapons. But no European government, for domestic political reasons, would be prepared to make such a statement. In fact, a year ago last month, NATO defense ministers called for a ban on all chemical-warfare technology. The final compromise by Congress was to require "consultation" with NATO, with a stipulation that no money could be spent until this October.

The task of engineering an agreement acceptable to the United States and its NATO allies was assigned to the international staff of NATO's secretariat in Brussels. Theirs was a long, painful effort and yet, for a time, it seemed they might succeed.

Every two years, according to an established procedure, each NATO member informs the others of its "force goals" during the spring meeting of the Defense Planning Commission, meaning any modifications of military policy, including modernization of the structure and armaments of its military forces. This is a routine procedure, usually considered by the ministers as one of the most tedious parts of the meeting. There is in fact no debate on such procedures: participants listen and simply "take note."

The NATO secretariat put the chemical weapons issue in the "force goals" agenda, meaning that during the U.S. presentation at the May Defense Planning Commission meeting, the American representative stated that the U.S. share of NATO's chemical weapons stockpile should be modernized. European ministers "took note."

Then the turmoil of the national interpretations began. The Dutch Defense Minister Jacob de Ruiter was the first to make clear in public that "to take note" does not mean "to approve" and that the Hague government abhorred the idea of having new chemical weapons stored or deployed on its territory.

Belgian Premier Wilfried Martens had to face a parliamentary debate on the issue. The chamber of deputies recently voted a resolution stating that "Belgium will not store binary nerve gas or other new chemical weapons" nor will it equip its troops "with such weapons."

Italian Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini, a university professor, elaborated a complex theory of consensus in time of crisis. His notion called for most European allies to refuse the new weapons but--in a critical moment and responding to a U.S. initiative--they could consider a request to transfer the nerve agents to Europe and have them deployed. At that moment, and after debate, they might express their "consent."

Yet hurrying large volumes of chemical agents to Europe is an operation that could not be concealed. At a time of crisis with the Soviets, such a rush shipment could only enhance the dangers of conflict. This point has been made forcefully by Gen. Rogers himself, again and again. Although Spadolini's theory of consensus suits many West European governments that deny they actually approved anything at the recent NATO meeting, the Italian Cabinet gave its own interpretation of the defense minister's theory and that version was further interpreted and refined by the foreign ministry. All that interpreting began to stir the interest of public opinion in Italy.

Fortunately for peace in Italy at the moment, the confusion was diverted by overwhelming interest in the opening of the World Cup soccer tournament in Mexico, especially by the early victories for the Italian team. But this respite, too, will pass. The West Germans are already split into two camps on the chemical issue (the Socialist Party is fighting for creation of a "chemical-free zone" in Central Europe). The Greeks are opposed, as usual, to any increase of NATO forces.

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