Obama is Not Off to a Good START


Obama is Not Off to a Good START

Nov 19, 2010 3 min read

Chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute

Jim Talent is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Foreign policy is not getting much attention in Washington these days, but one issue will be on the forefront in the new Congress: the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which is before the Senate for ratification.

The Treaty almost certainly will not be ratified, at least as it is currently written, and the reason tells us a lot about the failures of President Obama's foreign policy.

New START is another in a round of nuclear disarmament agreements between the United States and Russia. When President Obama took office, the United States was in a strong position to negotiate a treaty because Russia needed an agreement more than America did; Russia's strategic arsenal is smaller than America's, and the Russians don't have the capacity to increase it by much anyway. It was very much in Russia's interests to get the United States to reduce its capabilities, so the Administration should have been able to wrap up a fair agreement quickly.

Unfortunately, President Obama decided to declare how much he wanted to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, making a speech to this effect early in 2009. Then, to show the Russians he was serious about appeasing them, he gave them the thing they wanted most: he unilaterally abandoned the missile defense bases in Poland and Czechoslovakia that the Bush administration had negotiated before leaving office.

Those bases were very important to American security and credibility. It's hard to think of anything the Russians could have given the United States that would have been worth trading the bases away; to have given them up for nothing, in the process betraying the Poles and Czechs, can charitably be described as very naive. But the president thought that his rhetoric, coupled with abandoning the missile defense bases, would "reset" our relations with the Russians and cause them to cooperate with his disarmament aspirations.

However, the Russians moved in the opposite direction. They bargained hard for a treaty that uniquely benefits them, in particular by limiting America's missile defense shield.

As Sen. John McCain of Arizona and others have noted, the Obama administration promised that it would not permit linkage in the treaty between offensive weapons and ballistic missile defense. Yet the new treaty contains exactly that linkage in its preamble, as well as other specific limits on missile defense.

The Obama administration claims that the treaty would not limit America's ability to complete the missile defense shield. That is not Russia's view. The Russians have said publicly that the treaty prohibits America from completing its missile defense system.

Given the aggressiveness of North Korea and Iran, the ballistic missile shield may be the most important defensive system America has. It would not be worth sacrificing that system even to get a good agreement on nuclear reductions between Russia and the United States.

However, the rest of the treaty was not well negotiated either. The verification procedures are weak, the treaty does not mention tactical nuclear weapons (where the Russians have a huge lead), it does not affect rail-based launchers (which the Russians have been willing to use in the past), it permits the Russians to outfit their arsenal with multiple re-entry vehicles, and it sets launcher limits at a level where the United States will have to reduce its capabilities to a questionably low level.

For several months this summer, the Obama administration tried to push the treaty through the Senate without even acknowledging its weaknesses.

START probably will not be ratified, at least unless the Russians agree to amendments or clarifications, and no one believes that is likely. A vote on the treaty will be delayed until next year after the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, Jon Kyl of Arizona, came out this week against voting on it during the lame-duck session of Congress.

The president undoubtedly will blame the result on the Senate's lack of understanding, or partisanship or anything besides the real reason: his extreme ideology, coupled with his inexperience, has blinded him to basic reality, and is causing him (and, unfortunately, his country) to be taken less and less seriously by friend and foe alike.

Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Missouri, is a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where he specializes in military readiness and welfare reform issues.

First appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch