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

Shadow Government

Obama needs leverage for North Korea talks

To further Peter's thoughts in his recent post, I agree that the Obama administration is right to reject China's call for more talks with North Korea, and to refuse any further negotiations with the DPRK until Kim Jong Il's regime changes its behavior. Yet one can't escape the irony that the Obama administration is following the same policy of refusing to negotiate that brought much self-righteous criticism from many commentators against former President George W. Bush. And as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama made the centerpiece of his foreign policy a pledge to do just the opposite, specifically offering to talk without preconditions to hostile regimes.

Let me be clear -- I support the White House on this aspect of their North Korea policy. But I also think this might be a good occasion for reflection by commentators on all sides, myself included. It seems that the same voices that so indignantly condemned the Bush administration for its occasional refusal to engage in unconditional negotiations with unsavory regimes (such as Iran) now fall silent when the Obama administration does the same thing. Perhaps this is another example of what Ross Douthat perceptively described earlier this week as the "partisan mind" at work.

It is also a reminder to partisans and observers on all sides to resist caricaturing each other's positions. I hope this latest impasse with North Korea at least helps elevate the policy debate beyond the hackneyed and simplistic "negotiate or not" rut. As any serious policymaker knows, in practice negotiations are one tool in the policy arsenal. They are not a neutral tool, as the act of negotiating inherently incurs potential risks (such as the other side using it to play a delay and dissemble game while still pursuing a nuclear program) along with potential rewards. And it is a fact that negotiating, especially if public, does confer some sense of legitimacy and political capital to the other side. Think of the debates in the 1980s over whether the odious apartheid regime in South Africa should be "isolated" or "engaged," and many critics rightfully pointed out that engagement would give the government a degree of legitimacy that it craved but did not deserve.

A realistic approach to negotiating must include leverage. For the United States, the most effective entry point for negotiating with an adversarial regime begins with assessing what kind of leverage we can bring to the negotiating table, and what kind of negotiating posture it would give us. Such a leveraged posture could include inducements we possess that the other side desires, or coercive instruments that are either in place and the other side wants lifted, or that haven't been triggered yet and the other side wants to avoid. If a careful "leverage assessment" reveals a weak hand, then it is usually best not to enter into unconditional negotiations, especially because in those cases the best type of leverage might actually be the prospect of negotiations, desired by the other side.

In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il's $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea's behavior. Refusing to negotiate from the current posture is a good starting point and helps turn North Korea's (possible) desire for talks into a source of some small leverage. To gain more leverage, reimposing the financial market sanctions on the private accounts of the regime's leaders would help, as would revisiting the state sponsor of terrorism list. Equally important will be exploring ways to change China's cost/benefit calculation for its support of the DPRK. Perhaps after these kinds of steps are taken, it will be time to talk again.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images