Argument

The False START Debate

The critics and the boosters are both wrong: Obama's nuke treaty with Russia is a huge nothingburger. But Republicans should vote to ratify it anyway.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and its allies on the left would have us believe that the Senate's failure to ratify a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia before the end of the year will significantly damage the security of the United States. "There is no higher national security priority for the lame-duck session of Congress. The stakes for American national security are clear, and they are high," Obama intoned last week.

Meanwhile, some on the right are arguing that ratification of New START would put the United States at a disadvantage in its strategic relationship with Russia, lead to a surge in nuclear proliferation, and empower rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea.

Neither side is correct. New START is a rather meaningless arms-control agreement notable more for what it fails to do than what it achieves.

Obama hoped to accomplish much more in his negotiations with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. When he laid out his goal of a world without nuclear weapons in Prague in April 2009, he described New START as a concrete step toward achieving his vision. "To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year," he said. "And this will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear-weapons states in this endeavor."

By the time the treaty was signed a year after that speech, it had largely been stripped of these lofty goals. After months of tortuous negotiations, it became evident that Russia had no interest in drastically reducing its nuclear stockpile, which currently stands at roughly 1,700 warheads. In fact, Russia is already technically in compliance with the treaty's new limits on deployed delivery systems -- 700 -- even before New START has been ratified.

As Obama struggles to get his first step toward a nuclear-weapons-free world past the Senate, the further cuts he promised in Prague also look increasingly unlikely. The Russians have made clear that they will only discuss cuts to their tactical nuclear forces -- estimated at as many as 2,000 operational weapons, many of which sit across the border from America's NATO allies -- if the United States withdraws its much smaller number of tactical weapons from Europe, which is certain to be a nonstarter for Washington and its allies in Central Europe.

Much of the criticism from the president's Republican critics about New START has been well intentioned but exaggerated. The fact of the matter is that New START could have been much worse. If anything is worth criticizing, it is the president's singular focus on a fanciful vision of nuclear disarmament. This has come at the expense of serious action on efforts to prevent and halt proliferation, distracting him from real challenges such as North Korea, which just revealed a new uranium-enrichment facility, and Iran, which despite problems with its centrifuges at Natanz, continues to make steady progress toward a nuclear-weapons capability.

Setting aside the limited nature of the actual cuts, conservative critics have raised some valid concerns about New START. Early statements from the Obama administration and Russian officials on the relevance of missile defense to New START were contradictory and confusing. The Kremlin issued a statement implying that further U.S. development of its missile defense systems "quantitatively or qualitatively" would be grounds for Russian withdrawal from the treaty. But the ratification resolution approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and subsequent statements by administration officials make clear that New START does not limit America's ability to deploy a robust missile defense system. Other important questions about possible limitations on U.S. plans to develop a conventional prompt global strike capability, which will be all the more important as the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, also are addressed by the ratification resolution.

New START has been the centerpiece of the president's much vaunted "reset" with Russia. Now that the administration has overplayed its hand by making promises to the Russians about a ratification timeline that it cannot keep, it has undermined its credibility with Moscow. Republicans should rightly criticize the administration's willingness to forgo serious criticism of Russia's abysmal human rights record, its increased stifling of freedom of expression, and its continued occupation of Georgia (a future NATO ally), but in time, the "reset" will collapse whether or not New START is ratified.

There remains serious criticism of New START's merits on the right, and it is troubling that the administration is attempting to argue that Republicans such as Sen. Jon Kyl are interested only in killing the treaty. Kyl and a majority of his colleagues are just asking for more time to explore their concerns about the treaty and continue discussions with administration officials about funding levels for modernization of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

From the rhetoric of the administration and its surrogates, one would believe that if New START is not ratified by the end of the year, nuclear weapons will suddenly fall into the hands of terrorists. Last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry warned that a failure to ratify the treaty would mean that U.S. inspectors would continue to be unable to confirm the safety of Russia's nuclear stockpile, resulting in "no American boots on the ground in Russia able to protect American interests."

Kerry is correct to say that since the 1994 START agreement expired in December 2009, START inspections of Russian and U.S. nuclear sites have not occurred. But ironically, New START, unlike the agreement it replaces, would not have U.S. monitors at Russia's mobile missile-production facility at Votkinsk. If this was an overwhelming concern, the Obama administration and Russia could have agreed to continue inspections without a new treaty.

It is also ridiculous to argue that such inspections really provide that much knowledge about Russia's activities or somehow prevent Russian nukes from falling into terrorist hands. Like most similar arms-control measures, they are confidence-building measures. The United States relies on a variety of other means, including intelligence gained via methods other than arms-control agreements, to actually monitor Russia's stockpile. Through initiatives such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the United States also works with Russia on nuclear-security issues, cooperation that proceeds regardless of what happens with New START.

New START should be ratified, but only once the Senate has done its due diligence to take into account the strategic posture of the United States, including its need for a viable nuclear arsenal. Several more months will not change the strategic situation, nor should it lessen Russia's support for U.S. efforts on Iran or its (limited) support for U.S. and coalition efforts in Afghanistan. Russian nukes will remain secure and U.S. security unthreatened by at least this potential avenue of attack.

By claiming otherwise, the Obama administration and its critics are doing the United States a disservice and engaging in a very unserious debate about U.S. national security.

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

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