This ninth year of the century's 10th decade is taking a toll on one of the century's characteristic chimeras. Liberalism and (which is much the same thing) wishful thinking favor arms control as a means of taming the unruly world with pieces of paper. However, two attempts at arms control are collapsing simultaneously, with reverberations in a third conflict that has an arms control dimension.

President Clinton says he is "encouraged" by Iraq's cooperation with U.N. inspectors attempting to eliminate Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. The head of those inspectors, Richard Butler, says there has been "virtually no progress" in six months. The president's U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson, says "there's been zero progress."So Israel knows that the president makes foreign policy pronouncements that are disconnected from reality. Israel is in a "peace process" with an entity, the Palestine Authority, which remains committed, in its unamended charter, to Israel's destruction. The accords contain arms control: The PA is limited to a police force of 24,000. Instead, the PA has an army twice that size.

The president, who is "encouraged" by Iraq's behavior, wants Israel to accept his estimate of Israel's security needs. He has helped China, by technology transfers, develop nuclear weapons. He has been relaxed about China helping Pakistan toward nuclear capability. He is startled that India wants nuclear weapons.

India, although provoked by recent U.S. policy, would have acquired nuclear weapons anyway. With a population 45 percent larger than the combined populations of four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia), India is not impressed by "international norms" defined by others to ratify their advantages.

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush, and his colleague in a Washington consulting firm, David Sloan, express (in the Los Angeles Times) the foreign policy elite's dreamy disappointment that India has affronted "international norms." India, they say, must decide whether to "rejoin the global community." But it is peculiar to speak of a "global community" with India's one-fifth of the world's population exiled (by whom?) therefrom.

And what is the pertinent "norm"? That there shall be no nuclear proliferation? Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, notes that U.S. policy (not quite the same thing as an "international norm") "all along has been one of selective and preferential proliferation." U.S. policy openly helped Britain to become a nuclear power, less openly assisted France, and did not become exercised about Israel developing such weapons.

For 50 years U.S. policy was that nuclear deterrence (remember "mutual assured destruction"?) can be conducive to stability. Now U.S. policy is to tell Pakistan that a nuclear imbalance is crucial to stability in South Asia. Perhaps it is.

However, arms control is usually impossible until it is unimportant. Nations will abide by only those arms limitation agreements that do not seriously inconvenience their pursuit of security and other national interests. As India's euphoria about the nuclear tests demonstrates, those interests can have a huge psychological component.

Washington Post Writers Group