Thank God Barack Obama has finally thrown down the gauntlet on Senate ratification of New START, the president's strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia. On Thursday Obama agreed to force a vote on the treaty over Republican objections during the current lame-duck session.
Of course, his administration has thrown down other gauntlets that it has subsequently picked up again: freezing settlements in Israel, rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the rich, including a "public option" in its health-care bill. It may flinch again if the votes aren't there. But the most important Republican holdout on START, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, has done the administration a favor by negotiating over the terms of the treaty in such transparently bad faith that no illusions can possibly remain about the value of further debate. After demanding and receiving a series of extraordinary concessions to win his vote, Kyl abruptly announced Tuesday that owing to "complex and unresolved issues" regarding the treaty, he would not be prepared to vote on it this year.
And whatever doubts might remain among even the hyperbolically fair-minded have been dispelled by an almost unprecedented burst of temper from Kyl's colleague, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who complained bitterly to reporters that his own caucus was trying to block a vote on the treaty before the Senate adjourned for the year. "No one," Lugar said, "wants to be counted."
Now, of course, it is the White House doing the counting. Obama needs 67 senators to vote for ratification, at least nine of whom must be Republicans. His aides have identified 12 to 15 GOP senators who might vote for the treaty -- though a New York Times tally found zero of them, save Lugar, prepared to be counted. "What we are fighting against here," a White House aide told me, "is the argument that Nov. 2 was a repudiation of the Obama agenda, and this is part of the Obama agenda and why should we vote for it?" In fact, he says, "this is a continuation of the Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and even George W. Bush agenda." If the White House sticks to its guns, we'll find out soon enough whether the merits of the case actually matter, or at least whether Republicans are willing to say no to the senior military officials who will be visiting their offices to implore them to cast a vote for U.S. national security.
The White House has already paid a ridiculous price for what was once deemed a modest advance in arms control. To appease Kyl and other Republicans, the administration agreed earlier this year to raise spending on the labs that design and refurbish nuclear weapons and materiel by 13 percent, at a time when most federal agencies were enduring tiny budget increases or none at all. And the administration agreed to exempt that sum from a congressional resolution that froze all other spending at current levels throughout 2010. Obama has also agreed to add yet another $4.1 billion to that outlay over the next five years -- "a nuclear spending spree that would have been inconceivable during the Bush administration," as Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists recently wrote.
The pity of all this is not only, as Kristensen notes, that such colossal spending undermines the administration's argument to the rest of the world that it is reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, but that this extravagant goody was supposed to be dangled in exchange for something really difficult to get: GOP support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would prohibit all testing of nuclear weapons. Now that it has been spent on START, there's nothing left in the bribery cupboard.
It's been a long, painful journey. I began talking to White House and State and Defense Department officials about Obama's nonproliferation agenda way back in the summer of 2009, when the world looked ripe for transformation. The plan then was to conclude talks with the Russians in the fall and win Senate approval in early 2010; use the goodwill thus engendered at the review conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May to push other countries to fortify the treaty's provisions; and then, maybe, initiate hearings in the Senate on the test-ban treaty, which everyone understood would be a tough sell. Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian negotiators would have returned to the table to do the really serious work of pushing the number of deployed weapons -- including the tactical weapons excluded from START -- down toward 1,000 or so.