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Jewish World Review/ September 1, 1998/ 10 Elul, 5758

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez Bears and blunders

A BEAR IS NEVER MORE DANGEROUS than when it is weak or wounded. And what holds true for Ursus americanus is also true for the weak and wounded Russian bear, which is why President Clinton's summit with Boris Yeltsin poses potential danger for the United States.

The problem is compounded by President Clinton's own difficulties, including a possible impeachment inquiry this fall. The best that can come of the meeting between the Russian leader who has presided over the virtual collapse of his country's economy and the American president who has defiled his office and betrayed Americans' trust is --- nothing. We can only hope that when Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin stand side by side at the conclusion of this week's summit, there will be little of significance to report.

The worst that could happen is an agreement on dismantling nuclear stockpiles. The United States wants Russia to come up with a plan to reprocess some of the 160 tons of weapons-grade plutonium in its stockpiles into material that could be used only for nuclear power plants. Last month, Vice President Gore signed an agreement with his Russian counterpart that calls for the Russians to build a new plant to reprocess the plutonium. But the deal is precarious, at best, given Russia's financial crisis.

Russia's huge caches of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium are an enormous threat to the United States and other countries as well. Unlike U.S. nuclear raw materials, the Russian radioactive metals exist in components that can easily be installed in weapons. And the market for these nuclear building blocks is huge.

Imagine how much terrorists like multimillionaire Osama bin Laden would be willing to pay for some nuclear-grade plutonium? Or, more likely, outlaw nations like North Korea, which Monday test-fired a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload, its first such test in more than five years?

The Russian government is so cash poor at the moment and corruption in its ranks so widespread that the temptation to turn plutonium or uranium into hard currency must be overwhelming. Which, of course, is why the administration is anxious for an agreement that would render this nuclear material unusable for building weapons.

But the problem is that any agreement with Russia at the moment could lock the United States into accelerating the dismantling of its own nuclear raw material without any real assurance that the Russians would follow suit. The United States already maintains far less plutonium than Russia -- about 100 tons according to reports -- and American radioactive material is far more secure than Russia's. The only way that American plutonium could find its way into the wrong hands is if it were stolen -- a nearly impossible feat.

It would be wrong for the United States to dismantle more of its plutonium and uranium at a time when Russian stocks of these same dangerous nuclear materials could end up in the hands of madmen willing to use them against the United States or its allies.

The Clinton administration has already walked the United States into a series of bad foreign policy bargains, including the fiasco over Iraqi chemical and biological weapons inspections and the agreement to provide North Korea with a new, high-tech nuclear power plant in hopes of staving off that country's nuclear weapons program. In each case, President Clinton touted a foreign-policy victory when, in fact, the only winners were our adversaries. We signed on the dotted line and kept our commitments while Iraq and North Korea continued their renegade behavior.

Even if the pro-democracy forces in Russia -- of which there seems to be a dearth these days -- sincerely want to build down Russia's nuclear arsenal, they can't guarantee that a U.S.-Russian agreement will be worth the paper it's written on. Better no agreements at this time than one that the United States keeps and Russia doesn't.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.