The test ban fiasco provides all that many people will need to believe that Bill Clinton desperately requires help with his foreign policy to avoid further disaster, or costly wheel-spinning, in the year remaining to his presidency. He has a long list of the important and familiar projects he intends to tackle--Middle East and Ireland, Russia and China, new threats and so on. But he does not a have a short list of priorities, nor a political strategy that will allow him to cope with the raw political partisanship likely to mark the new year.
Here is how he might do better, rather than worse, in 2000. Take James Schlesinger aboard as special adviser on cracking the national missile defense nut. This is the big issue that needs to be resolved on its own merits for the sake of American security. Its resolution could save the valuable and deteriorating American connection to Russia. Two immense matters.
Earnest and devoted as they are, Clinton's top people do not have among them the combination of advantages that Schlesinger would bring to the several requisite tables, domestic political and international, on the missile defense issue. It is not just that in his time he's run all the big national security bureaucracies. A fastidious national-interest conservative, he has a profound grasp of the strategic stakes. He enjoys a reputation for intellectuality, nonpartisanship and bluntness in these affairs. Any deal he brought home could expect the favor of a majority of Republican conservatives as well as almost all the Senate's Democrats.
The president could go into 2000 with his team as he now plans, and end up perhaps with a foreign-policy disappointment and an election issue. But this would be an unworthy harvest, especially if something better was available. This is the key point.
I thought Schlesinger was wrong--serious but wrong--to go against the test ban treaty. He feared an end to testing would cost us confidence in the reliability of the nuclear stockpile and eventually raise questions both in friendly and unfriendly places about the integrity of the American deterrent. He recognized we would immediately lose the treaty's potential contribution to inhibiting nuclear wannabes, but he argued--without convincing me--that in the long run a treaty would merely feed a spreading nuclear fever.
But the missile defense issue is positioned differently. Already the administration and the Schlesinger constituency are in pretty much the same neighborhoood, if not the same place. They both now want a limited defense for the whole country against rogue and accidental launches. And they both want to achieve this objective without feeding Russian paranoia and hypernationalism.
The Russian fear is that an American missile defense would or could grow from a thin shield against the rogues into a thick shield that would halt Russian missiles as well and thereby hollow out the Russian deterrent. A struggling Russia would be left even more the weakened and vulnerable state than it is, and advertising its woe and alarm.
Addressing this Russian fear, Schlesinger proposes a "substantial modification" of the much-buffeted 1972 anti-missile treaty to permit "a full understanding of any threats that might be directed against the United States." But the modification "should not be so substantial that it would deny to Russia what the Russians clearly value, and that is the continued existence of a retaliatory capability against the United States; indeed, probably the only retaliatory capability in the world, including China."
To use the Schlesinger leverage, Senate Democrats might have to yield a little on their generally reasonable reluctance to spend big money fast on a Republican antimissile system that could be deployed sooner but that might be of dubious technical and military merit.
Never mind. The United States is poised to reap a historic twofer: first, protection against the likeliest sort of missile attacks and second, the rescue and transformation of a crucial, now perilously dangling, connection with Russia.
But the Clinton administration is not its own best candidate to actually reap this benefit for the country. It lacks the political standing and strategic clout to earn the requisite full confidence of Senate Republicans, of whom some are simply narrow and mean and others, with Schlesinger, are tough and conservative but demanding and deserving to be heard.