PRUDEN: Measuring Putin for Mount Rushmore

But ridding Syria of its chemicals won’t be easy

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If you’re reading or listening in the wrong places, you might think they’re already measuring a place for Vladimir Putin on Mount Rushmore, sandwiched between Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. That’s where Barack Obama, who may have to give Mr. Putin the Nobel Peace Prize he won for doing nothing, expected to rest one day.

Before the sculptors with their chisels board a train for Rapid City, the euphoric legion should stop to figure out just how Mr. Putin and his client, Bashar Assad, intend to dismantle the stocks of chemical weapons. Easier said than done. The general consensus seems to be that the dreadful potions can be packed up in a couple of days and dispatched to a hole in the ground, never to be seen or thought of again. The Swedes could then get on with casting the Nobel medal, preferably in platinum instead of the cheaper bronze.

But not so fast. Even if the peacemaker and his sidekick, the poisoner, actually want to dismantle the Syrian chemical stocks — an “if” as big as a senator’s backside — it won’t be easy, and the task could take months, if not years. “In the best of circumstances, it will be a long and tedious task,” says a weapons analyst in Washington, “and these will be far from the best of circumstances.” The lawyers, diplomats, United Nations bureaucrats and their endless train of clerks and go-fers must do their work before the chemists and engineers even arrive with their shears and torches.

The Syrians will first have to declare and identify all the items to be destroyed, which will be embarrassing, insofar as war criminals can be embarrassed, because Mr. Assad, with Russian complicity, has insisted for years that the sarin and other gasses were figments of Western imagination, no more substantial than a tiny wisp of suspicious fog. The U.N. will surely insist on being in charge; Mr. Putin has already indicated that he intends to run the show. Despite his effusive praise for the U.N. in his op-ed, he doesn’t trust the U.N. any more than anyone else does.

Exactly what has to happen is not yet clear. Before dismantling starts, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the U.N., or the U.N. Security Council, might have to approve a lot of fine print with many i’s undotted and t’s uncrossed. Since the Russians, as Mr. Putin pointedly observed in his op-ed, have a veto in the Security Council, everything everyone else decides could be obliterated with a vote, even if the poison stuff can’t.

Then everything will have to be inspected, studied, examined and scrutinized again. Opportunities for stalling will be abundant, and the inspections could go on forever.

The United States discontinued its biological weapons programs in 1969, on the instructions of President Nixon amid a loud public outcry over the use of Agent Orange in South Vietnam. Seven different biological agents were produced at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in rural Arkansas between 1954 and 1969, and all were destroyed between 1971 and 1973. There were no intrusions by outside governments or organizations, and the dismantling still was not easy.

Pine Bluff Arsenal, which was built in 1941 to manufacture magnesium and thermite incendiary bombs used in World War II, was the last repository of American biological stocks. The cotton fields in surrounding Jefferson County were the site of the only gas dispensed on American soil when, in 1947, several captured German rockets containing mustard gas were accidentally launched into the countryside. If anyone was hurt, the U.S. government, which can be as secretive as the Syrians, has never acknowledged it.

Poison gas and the residue is difficult to eliminate. Traces of it remain in storage containers more or less permanently. Only a decade ago, the arsenal at Pine Bluff was assigned the mission of decontaminating more than 4,000 containers, each weighing 1,600 pounds. The containers were heated to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 minutes, and when cool put on trailers for transport to storage and disposal centers “elsewhere.” The containers were cut in half, and the steel was recycled. By 2011, nearly 7 million pounds of steel from the containers became usable steel again. Several of the buildings where the stocks had been stored were then destroyed.

No one is likely to press Mr. Putin if he plays the delaying game. The euphoria at the White House, like the euphoria in other capitals, will be just as satisfying as actually getting rid of the Syrian chemical stocks. Mr. Putin can probably keep some of the chemicals as “souvenirs” if he likes. The Great Gas Warfare Crisis of 2013 is over.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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