Shadow Government

The New START fight is about politics, not national security

President Obama appeared yesterday with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and received his endorsement of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. In today's Washington Post, Powell joined Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, and Lawrence Eagleburger in presenting "The Republican case for ratifying New START."

With former Republican officials coming out in favor of the treaty's ratification and amidst reports that some Senate Republicans may be willing to trade New START for an extension of the Bush tax cuts, New START ratification now seems to be mostly a matter of timing.

That said, the debate over New START has been an interesting one on both the left and the right. Many conservatives rightly highlighted a number of substantive concerns about the treaty in the months after Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed it in April, but some took their opposition further. Former Massachusetts governor and potential presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed calling the treaty, "Obama's worst foreign policy mistake," and in June, a group of conservative leaders wrote in a "memo for the movement" that New START "will make America less safe."

The reality, as I lay out in more detail in a piece on ForeignPolicy.com, is that New START is a rather meaningless treaty. The treaty would reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal by only a modest amount and leave us at levels that most experts agree are sufficient to maintain our global nuclear deterrent. Most of the concerns expressed by New START critics are due to the bungled manner in which the Obama administration announced its new phased adaptive approach for missile defense last year, as well as the savvy rhetorical games played by the Russians in a signing statement they released on missile defense. Fortunately, the resolution of ratification approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and subsequent administration statements address most of these concerns about missile defense and other contentious issues. Once New START reaches the Senate floor, critics will also have the opportunity to further modify the resolution of ratification to address any outstanding questions.

The most convincing argument that New START critics make is that the president's focus on disarmament and the time invested in Cold War-era arms control negotiations have diverted attention from the real proliferation challenges the United States faces, such as Iran and North Korea. But rejecting New START is not going to address that problem. That problem can only be solved by putting a new president in the White House.

Another valid concern is ensuring that as we reduce our nuclear stockpile, the weapons that remain are viable and modernized. That has been the focus of Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the leading Republican expert in the Senate on the issue. Through his efforts, the administration has pledged roughly $85 billion over the next ten years for weapons modernization. Kyl is seeking some final assurances that the money will actually be delivered in the years to come, but once he and other senators are satisfied that this is the case, Republicans should support ratification of New START.

Just as some of the conservative opposition to the treaty has been overstated, the case made by the administration and its surrogates for ratification during the lame duck session has often veered into the absurd. On NBC's Meet the Press on Nov. 28, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) stated that New START ratification was required this year to retain Russia's support for preventing a nuclear Iran. The administration has also been pressuring Jewish organizations to lobby Republicans because of this tenuous connection. The reality is that Russia has been a reluctant partner in our efforts to halt Iran's progress toward a nuclear weapon and there is no indication that the ratification or non-ratification of New START would impact those efforts. Other administration surrogates have implied that the lack of a current verification mechanism means that Russian nukes might fall into the hands of terrorists, which is laughable given that New START is not about nuclear security, but about confidence building between the world's two largest nuclear powers.

The real reason the administration wants this legislative victory is because of the importance it has placed on its "reset" of relations with Russia. As some of the cables released by WikiLeaks show, the reset is based on fundamentally unsound judgments about the type of regime that inhabits the Kremlin. Republicans should caution the administration about its efforts to embrace President Medvedev and should call for more pressure on Moscow on human rights and ending Russia's occupation of Georgian territory -- but New START is not the vehicle for achieving these goals or killing the reset.

The president has said that "there is no higher national security priority [than New START] for the lame-duck session of Congress." Some have argued that after his party's crushing defeat at the polls, Obama will now turn to foreign policy. The difficulty with this is that thus far he has very few foreign policy successes to cling to. That, not national security concerns, is why he is so desperate to get New START ratified this year.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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