Skip to content

President George H.W. Bush and the MTCR

I worked on several issues at the State Department that at least came close to being reviewed by President George H.W. Bush. 
As deputy director of a non-proliferation office in the Politico-Military Bureau (PM) I was the most senior person dealing exclusively with missile proliferation, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).  Everybody above me dealt with missile proliferation and other issues.  The initial members of the MTCR were the G-7: the US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, and Italy. As an international plenary meeting of all the original members was coming up in July 1990, there was a debate about whether to invite the Soviet Union to join.  The US government was split on this issue and could not come to a consensus on whether to invite them.  The assistant secretary for PM was Richard Clarke, later famous as the anti-terrorism chief for the White House on 9/11.  Clarke held several interagency meetings of his counterparts, but there was no agreement.  The State Department position was that we should invite the Soviets.
No one ever would tell me what the problem was with inviting the Soviets, but the resistance seemed to be coming from the intelligence community.  The best explanation I heard was that it might have complicated the CIA’s program of providing Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance, a program well described in the book and the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” although the Afghan war was winding down by then.   The US was supplying its Afghan proxies with small Stingers, while the Soviets had supplied their proxies with SCUD missiles, a large ground-to-ground missile capable of destroying multiple buildings over 100 miles away.  The MTCR only covered large missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.  The MTCR covered SCUDs, but not Stingers.  Thus the MTCR might have imposed limits on the Soviets in Afghanistan, but not on the US.  Although it was a diminishing problem it might have been imprudent to add it to the existing stress in the relationship.
Another problem was that the Soviet Union was disintegrating.  The Soviets appeared willing to join., but the mysterious American ambivalence could have been due to President Bush’s overall goal of ending the Cold War with minimal turmoil  Was it better to get the Soviet Union (and presumably any successor state) on board with the MTCR’s arms control  guidelines while we had the chance, or was it better to wait and try to get agreement from a more stable successor government?  Unfortunately, no one ever discussed these issues in any meetings that I attended.  I did not detect any such concern on the part of the State Department Soviet desk, which was willing to approve an invitation. 
In any case, we could not get an agreement, and so I prepared a memo to the White House to get President Bush to make a decision.  The memo gave the background and then asked the President to check a box on whether to invite the Soviets: yes or no.  Attached to the memo were two draft instruction telegrams, giving the US delegation talking points: one telegram told our MTCR partners that we wanted to invite the Soviets, and one told them that we did not want to invite them.  The White House would send the appropriate telegram depending on which box the President checked.  I think around this time,  I also drafted a memo from Secretary of State Jim Baker to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell asking the JCS to join State in recommending that the President approve inviting the Soviets, but the JCS declined. 
We sent the decision memo to the White House weeks before the MTCR meeting, but heard nothing back.  One of the main NSC staffers working on the issue was Condi Rice, because she was responsible for Soviet affairs.  I tried repeatedly to call her, but could never talk to her.  I could only talk to her assistant, who kept saying that they were working on it.  Finally it was time to go to the meeting in Ottawa, and we still had no instructions. 
In Ottawa just hours before the meeting, around midnight, we got a call at our hotel that the embassy had a niact (night action) immediate telegram that we had to come down and read at the embassy.  When we got to there, we found that the White House had sent an instruction telegram, but it was neither of the ones I had drafted.  It looked as if they had picked alternate paragraphs from the two cables and combined them into one that did not make sense.  It did not clearly say whether to invite them or not.  We called Assistant Secretary Clarke the first thing in the morning, and he made a command decision to go ahead and invite the Soviets.  So, just minutes before the meeting started, we met with our fellow members and told them that we supported inviting the Soviets.  In the meeting, it was formally decided to invite them. 

When we got home, we found that the President had decided that he did not want to invite the Soviets.  So, we had to quickly tell our partners before the invitation was issued that we had changed our minds and that we did not want to invite the Soviets.  The invitation was not sent, but the US looked pretty bad for the way it had handled the issue.  Russia later joined the MTCR in 1995.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *