Today Sen. Fred Thompson’s Governmental Affairs Committee will take a much-needed look at a part of the Clinton legacy that is likely to haunt this country for years to come: The administration’s deliberate “take-down” of COCOM (the Coordinating Committee on Export Controls) and the belated introduction in its place of a Potemkin initiative known as the Wassenaar Arrangement.
It turns out that this one-two punch was more than just an isolated phenomena that resulted in the liquidation of a relatively effective multilateral mechanism for factoring security considerations into decisions about the overseas sales of sensitive “dual-use” technologies and, for that matter, in the gutting of much of the domestic U.S. export control apparatus, as well. In hindsight, we can now see that the impulses driving these ill-advised actions are but a microcosm of the Clinton-Gore administration’s dismal stewardship of the larger foreign policy portfolio.
Consider the following themes underpinning the decisions that destroyed COCOM and the establishment in the Netherlands city of Wassenaar in 1996 of an “arrangement” intended to contribute, in the words of its charter, “to regional and international security and stability, by promoting transparency and a greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies”:
“The Cold War is over” and “It’s the economy stupid”: These cliches have been the leitmotifs of what might loosely be described as the Clinton-Gore administration’s guiding philosophy. By the first, the president and his subordinates sought to justify their disdain for and disregard of virtually every traditional instrument and practice of U.S. security. With the fervor of the counterculture activists many of them were at formative stages of their lives, these officials have inflicted grievous harm on the armed forces, the intelligence community, law enforcement, even the rule of law itself.
Arguably none of these instruments was wielded with greater effect during the Cold War nor suffered more at the hands of the Clinton team than the multilateral, voluntary organization called COCOM and the U.S. government mechanisms that supported national security-minded export controls. People entrusted with top policy-making responsibilities in this area were appointed by President Clinton despite, if not because of, their records of hostility to such controls and the institutions that promoted and policed them. Not surprisingly, the wrecking operation was most evident at the Defense Department where the senior leadership and Defense Technology Security Administration once represented formidable impediments to ill-advised technology transfers.
The application of the principle that there is no longer any appreciable threat to American security and its corollary that economic interests should supersede all others has greatly exacerbated the government’s mistakes. Effectively encouraged to “see-no-evil” in a world in which it still abounds, corporate leaders have responded by focusing narrowly and parochially on shareholder concerns about the quarterly bottom line.
Sacrificing U.S. sovereignty and its ability, where necessary, to exercise influence through unilateral action. The Clinton-Gore administration has seemed to share the hostility others around the world have felt toward American power. Instruments of that power like COCOM, which once enabled this country effectively to block its allies’ ability to export dual-use technologies were especially resented. In the absence of leadership in Washington determined to adapt but preserve this vital mechanism, its fate was sealed.
Two years after COCOM was formally interred in 1994, the Clinton-Gore administration finally cobbled together a very different sort of “arrangement.” Under Wassenaar, “the decision to transfer or deny transfer of any item will be the sole responsibility of each Participating State.” Now, if we are lucky, we may be forewarned that a “participating state” is going to effect technology transfers we consider to be unwise. But we have lost for the moment at least, if not permanently the ability to interpose definitive objections.
“The Russians are our strategic partners.” The same is often said of China as well, by those who fail to appreciate that neither the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin nor the Forbidden City of Jiang Zemin can be counted upon to see their interests as coincident with ours. To the contrary, the available evidence suggests they perceive a shared interest in acting as each others’ strategic partners, at the expense of this country.
In keeping with the Clinton-Gore administration’s potentially fatal conceit about the nature of today’s world, the Wassenaar Arrangement includes Russia and two other, smaller-scale but problematic nations, Ukraine and the Slovak Republic. Having as members countries that regard as clients those we call “rogue states” assures that this “Arrangement” will be as ineffectual in the future as it has been to date in slowing the hemorrhage of strategic technologies to the cabal of bad actors former Undersecretary of State William Schneider has dubbed “Club Mad.”
Phony security mechanisms are better than none. In the area of export controls, as elsewhere, the Clinton-Gore administration has tried to obscure a dangerous policy failure with a multilateral fig leaf. Unfortunately, as in Wassenaar and various unverifiable arms control agreements, it has promoted to “prohibit” chemical and biological and nuclear weapons tests, such Potemkin exercises can induce a false sense of security. The soporific effect of this illusion is to compound damage done when a relatively effective multinational endeavor like COCOM is replaced with a regimen that was designed to fail.
The stakes associated with this sorry legacy are very high both in the export control arena and in the larger security policy context of which it is a small, but important, part.
Next week, thoughts about what the nation can do now to try to mitigate the damage inflicted by the Clinton-Gore administration.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times. This column is adapted from testimony he will provide today before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.