WASHINGTON -- President Clinton took the offensive yesterday against what he called the "reckless partisans" who defeated the nuclear test ban treaty, warning that their action could set off a round of dangerous testing and a proliferation of atomic weapons.
A day after his most devastating foreign policy setback, Clinton excoriated the Senate Republicans' "new isolationism," which he said "threatens America's economic well-being and now our national security."
"They are betting our children's future on the reckless proposition that we can go it alone, that at the height of our prosperity, we should bury our heads in the sand," Clinton said during an hourlong televised news conference that was dominated by the test ban debate.
In impassioned tones, the president pledged to maintain the United States' 7-year-old moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. And he implored other nations not to resume their nuclear weapons development.
"I signed that treaty," Clinton said. "It still binds us unless I go, in effect, and erase our name."
But, he warned, "if we ever get a president that's against the test ban treaty, then I think you might as well get ready for it.
"We'll have Russia testing. We'll have China testing. We'll have India testing. We'll have Pakistan testing. We'll have countries abandoning the nonproliferation treaty."
With the defeat in the Senate of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the president has been forced to recognize that his authority has been severely weakened overseas and that his leverage with the Republican-led Congress has plummeted as well.
"It's going to be very hard for any of us to lecture China, India or Pakistan now," said a British diplomat in Washington. "Why should the hard-liners in the Indian Parliament behave any better now that they can point to the U.S. Senate and all its wisdom?"
The test ban's rejection, on a largely party-line vote of 51-48, was historic. The treaty -- proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 -- was the first international security accord to be defeated by the Senate since the Treaty of Versailles, which established the League of Nations after World War I. The test ban would move beyond the current prohibition on atmospheric nuclear tests to ban all nuclear weapons explosions, including underground blasts.
Lott fires back
Far from backing away from the Senate's action, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott fired back yesterday, noting that Clinton had waited until an hour and a half before the vote to appeal for a face-saving delay. By then, Lott said, it was too late.
The Mississippi Republican expressed pride in his party's rejection of an "ineffectual, unverifiable and unenforceable" arms accord.
"We did our job," Lott said, denying that politics had played a role in the treaty's defeat. "We did the right thing for our country, and I'm very proud of it."
The Senate's vote is almost sure to influence nations that have not ratified the test ban and had been waiting to see what the United States would do first. The treaty cannot go into force until all 44 nations with nuclear capability ratify it; fewer than 30 have done so.
Clinton appealed to the declared nuclear powers -- especially the newest, India and Pakistan -- to ratify the ban and refrain from testing.
But the appeal has already lost its authority. A spokesman for Benazir Bhutto, a Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister, said neither India nor Pakistan is likely to sign the treaty now.
"Every country will use it as an excuse not to sign," said another Pakistani opposition leader, Naveed Qamar.
The Russian Foreign Ministry pronounced itself "disillusioned and seriously concerned," calling the rejection of the treaty an attempt to "destabilize the foundations of international relations."
Many U.S. allies appeared equally concerned about the consequences for arms control.
"This decision is a serious setback for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament," the German and Swedish foreign ministers, Joschka Fischer and Anna Lindh, said in a joint statement. "It is a wrong signal which we deeply regret."
Foreign Minister Yohei Kono of Japan said: "The adverse effects are inestimable. We had hoped for the U.S.' leadership in nuclear disarmament and in preventing nuclear proliferation."
Lott said the Republican senators who opposed the treaty could not base their decisions on international sentiment. They had to consider U.S. security, he said, adding that the United States cannot maintain the safety and reliability of its weapons arsenal without nuclear testing. Nor would international monitors be able to verify whether nations were flouting the treaty with small-scale nuclear explosions, the Senate majority leader contended.
"There are a lot of people around the world [who] probably would like to see the United States drop its guard, unilaterally disarm," Lott said.
Clinton scoffed at those assertions, noting that he had included a provision requiring the United States to abrogate the test ban if nuclear weapons scientists could not determine that the stockpile was safe and reliable. The accord also requires the building of a web of seismic monitors to detect clandestine tests.
If the Republicans were concerned about these issues, the president asked, why did Lott not allow senators to amend the treaty to address their concerns? The Chemical Weapons Convention, the last arms control accord to reach the Senate, in 1998, was approved with more than 20 additional safeguards and limits.
Clinton dismissed suggestions that the defeat of the treaty was inspired by spite. Vice President Al Gore was more accusatory. Speaking to the Democratic Leadership Council yesterday, Gore said the "breathtakingly reckless" vote "feels like political spitefulness."
White House aides were fuming over a quip by Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who led Senate opposition to the treaty, just before the final vote Wednesday. Trying to impersonate British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had lobbied the Senate on Clinton's behalf, Helms said: "Give Monica my regards."
In the wake of the Senate vote, Democrats quickly tried, against long odds, to turn their defeat into a political victory. Gore hastily began airing the first political advertisement of his White House campaign, in which he decries a vote that went "against the tide of history and the advice of the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter administrations."
Gore said he drafted the ad's wording at 2 a.m. yesterday and completed taping at 4 a.m.
Former Sen. Bill Bradley, Gore's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, also pledged to push for the test ban's ratification if he is elected president.
The Republican presidential front-runner, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who opposes the test ban but supports continuing a voluntary U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing, commended the Senate's defeat of a "flawed treaty."
Clinton said that "there's something to" the assertion that voters will not punish the Republican Party for defeating the treaty, because Americans are not moved by foreign policy concerns.
"I told Senator Lott that I did not expect that this would ever be a big issue," the president conceded, but he added: "I think it might be now."