November 30, 2010 | Commentary on Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Playing Politics on National Security on New START Treaty

It’s a full court press by the Obama Administration.  The goal: to hurry the Senate into approving the stalled nuclear arms treaty, the New START Treaty, with Russia during the Lame Duck session.   This treaty is flawed, yet the Administration and allies in the Senate want to rush passage, because they are unwilling to seriously address shortcomings contained within the four corners of the Treaty and secret side agreements cut to secure Russian consent.

Last week, President Obama tried to buy the vote of linchpin Republican Sen. Jon Kyl by promising billions in “nuclear modernization” funds—a top priority for the defense-minded conservative.  At the NATO conference, he conjured up a rump meeting with Dmitry Medvedev, allowing the Russian president to warn of “very unpleasant” consequences should the treaty fail.  The President then dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the TV talk show circuit to make the dubious assertion that Ronald Reagan would’ve loved this treaty.

Signed by President Obama earlier this year, the New START treaty purports to limit strategic warheads held by the U.S. and Russia while establishing a new, bilateral inspection system.  The President calls the treaty “a national security imperative,” but skeptical Senators want more time to study the deal.  They’ve also demanded to see the negotiating record to see if negotiators entered a side agreement to halt the U.S. missile defense program—a claim made by members of the Russian Duma.

The Administration has stone-walled the document request for months.  Yet now it insists lawmakers must vote on the treaty—without this critical information—in a matter of days.

Why the rush?

It’s a matter of simple, political arithmetic.  The treaty needs 67 Senate votes to pass.  Assuming all Democrats vote in favor, the Administration needs to win—by hook or by crook—only nine GOP votes in the Lame Duck session.  Senator Mark Kirk’s (R-IL) swearing in has changed the makeup of the Senate in Lame Duck and the Democrat Caucus now only contains a coalition of 58 Senators.  If the vote rolls over to the new, more conservative Senate that will be seated next year, the Administration will need to pick up 14 Republican votes—a much more difficult task.

For this Administration, a ticking clock calls for desperate measures… and an exercise in “the Chicago way” of winning support.  According to Time magazine, the president sent  Gen. Kevin Chilton, four-star commander of America’s nuclear forces, and Jim Miller, a top civilian staffer, to offer Sen. Kyl (R-AZ) a quid pro quo: “In exchange for his vote backing the treaty, Chilton and Miller said, Obama would fund a $4.1 billion increase for nuclear modernization from 2012-16.” But, they stressed, it was a limited-time offer, good only until the end of Lame Duck.

If the treaty is really as good as the president says it is, he wouldn’t need to stoop to alarmist rhetoric, threats from foreigners and vote-buying.  All he’d need to do is let senators review the negotiating record and debate the treaty and side-agreements on their merits.

But the President refuses to engage critics of the treaty.  Former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and Paula DeSutter, former arms control expert in the George W. Bush Administration, wrote in the Washington Times that the Senate should deal with the unresolved questions “from compromising our national missile defense capabilities to undercutting the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces to unnecessarily limiting our use of missile and bomber launch capabilities for conventional warheads, the treaty is increasingly understood as badly flawed.”  It’s substantive issues like these that need to be resolved, not how big a presidential earmark it will take to buy off individual senators.

The promise of nuclear modernization money has nothing to do with missile defense or the structural problems of the treaty itself.  This ethical morass reminds many of the Cornhusker Kickback that carried the day in Senate debate on health reform.    The Cornhusker Kickback was a provision added to the bill to give Nebraska additional health care subsidies to help offset higher costs created by the reform.  That “pot-sweetener” brought Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) aboard.  He dropped his opposition to ObamaCare and cast the deciding vote that made ObamaCare the law of the land.  The President and his allies on the Hill are now playing the same dirty game with our national security.

There are substantive issues that need to be resolved by the Senate before ratification.  Promising nuclear modernization money will not solve problems within the Treaty. James Carafano, a coworker of mine at The Heritage Foundation who has written the “Top 10 Reasons Why New START is a Non-Starter.”  Carafano cites nuclear modernization, missile defense, the likelihood ”that New START will fail to protect the U.S. and its allies from attack, to provide verification of existing programs, and to prevent nuclear proliferation.”  These are merely a few of the arguments that deserve a full and fair airing in the Senate by elected members in the next Congress.

The New START Working Group argues that the verification measures in the Treaty are flawed.

The expiration of START’s verification regime does not represent a national security crisis, and New START’s verification regime will not do a great deal to foster greater Russian transparency regarding its strategic nuclear forces.

The left is losing the argument on national security grounds and they have desperately deployed the argument that military support for the Treaty should be dispositive 0n the issue.  Media Matters, the George Soros funded attack dogs of the left, assailed the opponents of the New START Treaty in a post titled “Right-wing media at odds with military leaders over START (sic).”

The right-wing media have been attacking President Obama’s New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), claiming it “may harm national security.” But the treaty enjoys widespread support among military leaders, who have called its passage a “no-brainer,” and have argued that “the treaty makes us safer.”

Media Matter cited my Big Government blog post as an example of an argument at odds with the military position on New START:

Big Government: “New START Treaty May Harm National Security.” In a July 24 Big Government post, contributor Brian Darling called New START “an idea that may harm American national security,” and claimed “[a]ny agreement to dismantle missile defense would [be] a mistake.” Darling quoted Sen. Jim DeMint(R-SC), writing on his blog, as saying, “[T]he U.S. should not sign a treaty that weakens our ability to protect Americans and our allies from nuclear weapons. While our missile defense systems are currently engineered to deter threats from rogue nations like Iran and Syria, our goal should be to continue to improve and expand those defenses to protect our people from any nuclear threats.” Darling concluded that DeMint is “right on the money.”

Media Matters argues that Defense Secretary Gates and other military leaders support for the Treaty should trump rational arguments against the substance of the Treaty and reported side agreements on missile defense.

Gates: ‘The treaty has the unanimous support of America’s military leadership.’ In a May 13 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that New START ‘has the unanimous support of America’s military leadership.’”

It seems logical that President Obama’s appointed Secretary of Defense would support a Treaty signed by Gates’ appointing authority.  The military’s support of a Treaty signed by the Commander-in-Chief seems like the logical outcome of the will of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces being implemented down the chain of command.  Would anybody expect the military to oppose a position taken by the President?  I think not.

Keith B. Payne and Tom Scheber wrote an excellent piece in National Review Online titled "The Threat of New START” showing some inconsistency in Secretary Gates’ argument:

During a September 2010 interview, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked whether Russia is a national-security threat, and whether he is concerned about Russia’s buildup of new, “more powerful ICBMs.” Secretary Gates’s response: “No. . . . I don’t see Russia as a threat. I see Russia –Russian-U.S. relations being those of normal states now.” Roughly a week later, Secretary Gates said again publicly, “It’s hard for me to imagine that those who are currently in NATO feel a real military threat coming from Russia.”  What about the potential threat of Russian cheating? A major 2010 State Department study reportedly concludes happily that “any” Russian cheating “would have little effect on the assured second-strike capabilities of U.S. strategic forces.”  Little wonder that the administration finds New START’s strikingly weak limits and verification measures acceptable. If Russia is no military threat and prospective Russian cheating would have little effect, then those verification measures serve only ornamental purposes. This line of thinking also fits well with the administration’s apparent lack of clear support for the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces in general. No firm limits on Russia, no strong verification measures, no problem.

A New START vote should be pushed into next year where a new Senate can take a fresh look at this flawed treaty.  For that to happen, though, the current Senate will have to refrain from playing “The Price Is Right” with treaty proponents throughout the Lame Duck session

About the Author

Brian Darling Senior Fellow for Government Studies
Government Studies

First appeared in Big Government