PRESIDENT BUSH has made significant progress recently in convincing U.S. allies that the prospect of weapons of mass destruction falling into terrorist hands poses the most serious global security threat. Yet Mr. Bush still hasn't been able to get parts of his own bureaucracy, or some Republicans in Congress, to absorb the idea -- nor does he seem at times to be trying hard enough. Evidence of this comes in congressional consideration of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, created in 1992 by then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). For 11 years this initiative has focused on destroying the largest and least-protected stockpiles of WMD in the world, which lie not in Iraq or North Korea but in the former Soviet Union. By investing less in a decade than has been spent this year alone on missile defense, the United States has managed to eliminate more than 6,000 nuclear warheads. Huge quantities of warheads and bomb-grade nuclear material remain in Russia, along with tens of thousands of tons of chemical weapons. Yet while it has reversed its initial attempts to gut the program, the administration's support for it, particularly in the Pentagon, remains lukewarm. It has solicited funding from other rich nations but not stepped up the U.S. commitment to a level that adequately addresses the threat.
It also has largely stood by while House Republicans who have fought Nunn-Lugar for years continue their efforts to hamstring it. This year Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, declared the program "open-ended, unfocused and self-defeating"; he then attached amendments to the defense authorization bill that would drastically curtail several crucial projects. The most important of these is a chemical weapons destruction facility now being built in the Russian town of Shchuchye that is intended to destroy thousands of tons of deadly nerve agents. At a nearby base, dilapidated bunkers hold a terrifying arsenal of 1.9 million artillery shells filled with nerve agent; a terrorist who managed to obtain just one of them would have the means to murder as many as 100,000 people. The administration is requesting $200 million next year for the project, which is being funded by an international consortium that includes European governments and Russia. But Mr. Hunter's committee slashed $29 million of the appropriation and conditioned much of the rest in ways that may prevent any funds at all from being used.
Mr. Hunter points to the fact that two other weapons disposal projects in Russia involving rocket fuel and engines have been badly mismanaged, wasting tens of millions of U.S. dollars. But his proposed cure would effectively freeze a project that by all accounts has been moving ahead relatively efficiently and that is aimed at eliminating a major threat. The White House has opposed Mr. Hunter's amendments, backing instead the Senate version of the bill that is now in conference committee. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice told Congress in May that "continued progress" on the Shchuchye facility "is essential to end as quickly as possible the proliferation threat posed by Russian nerve agent." In the post-9/11 world, that message ought to be enough to convince a Republican chairman of the House committee charged with national defense. That it evidently has not is a sign that a president who has made defense against weapons of mass destruction his overriding priority has not yet managed to overcome the obstructionism coming from senior members of his own party.