November 24, 2010 | Commentary on Arms Control and Nonproliferation
The White House’s efforts to ram the flawed U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty - aka New START - through the Senate during Congress’ lame-duck session are increasingly disingenuous and even desperate.
Team Obama is plainly pushing to take it up now because it’s panicked about getting the votes needed to ratify the treaty from the dwindling number of Democrats who will make up the Senate next year. But the issues are much bigger than mere vote counts: Some stalwart senators believe that giving the treaty a thumbs-up in its current state means a very good deal for the Russian Bear and a very bad one for good ol’ Uncle Sam.
How weak are the administration’s arguments for quick Senate action? Take a look:
Russkie Reset: The Obama White House claims that passing the treaty will further - even finalize - its “reset” of ties with the Kremlin, gaining substantive Russian help on a number of issues such as Iran and Afghanistan.
OK, Moscow made some small gestures at last weekend’s NATO summit on issues such as expanding the trucking of NATO non-lethal supplies across the Motherland to and from Afghanistan, the Russian training of Afghan narco-police and looking again at European missile defense.
But those are all only Kremlin promises at this point - giving the White House something to trumpet in order to sway public opinion back home about our new Russian “friends” and New START. But what will cooperation look like after the treaty (which is binding for 10 years) is ratified? No guarantees there.
Kremlin Cheating: Some, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, insist a failure to pass the treaty immediately will harm U.S. national security due to our inability to verify the state of the Russian nuclear arsenal, even invoking President Reagan’s “trust, but verify.”
Fair enough, but there’s been already a knowledge gap since last December when New START’s predecessor expired. It’s not clear how waiting a month or two more until the new Congress is in place will make a difference.
And if you’re really worried about Russian cheating, why would you sign a treaty with them at all? New START has no real penalties for non-compliance.
Partisan Play: The prez suggests the Republicans are playing politics with our national security by holding off on a vote: “There’s no other reason not to do it other than the fact that Washington has become a very partisan place.”
Maybe the Republicans are holding off not because of politics, but because they have genuine concerns about how the treaty will affect our national security, or the inappropriateness of trying to pass a treaty in a lame-duck Senate.
Some of the top worries: The treaty makes greater cuts in strategic weapons on our side than on the Russians’ and would greatly restrict missile defense. Plus there’s that verification problem as well as technical issues such as including Russian rail-mobile missiles and updating our aging nuke forces as we draw down.
Tethering Tehran: The administration is reportedly telling pro-Israel groups that they should push the treaty because it will ensure Russia will be on board in containing Iran. History suggests that this wouldn’t be a great bet.
Russia just built and fueled Iran’s first nuclear reactor. It’s been a source of weapons, including missile technology, to Tehran. And it’s consistently pushed to water down U.N. economic sanctions on Iran’s nuke program.
No surprise that after this month’s shellacking at the polls, the president is hungry to score a win before year’s end to bolster his flagging presidency at home and abroad. But New START’s the wrong place to look, given the existing problems with the treaty.
Rather than trying to spin away the treaty’s troubles, the White House would be better off spending the time and effort addressing the issues that worry senators.
As with most everything else, if you want it bad, you often get it bad. And the last thing we need to add to our significant domestic and foreign-policy challenges is a bad arms-control treaty.
Peter Brookes is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Boston Herald