On April 8, in Prague, the United States and Russia signed what they call the “New START” bilateral arms-control agreement, important specifics of which, in hallmark Obama-administration fashion (see health care), were still being negotiated. Nonetheless, the president and his acolytes are calling for the treaty’s swift ratification.
The Senate would better protect our country’s future by actually deliberating before rushing over the precipice. A vital constitutional imperative, the Senate’s role in making binding treaty commitments, is at stake. While some consider it passé to insist that legislators read and understand what they vote upon, senators should insist on their constitutional prerogatives, drawing a line in the sand on this national-security issue.
In fact, there is no compelling reason for the Obama-Medvedev treaty, and there are many reasons to fear its impact. Since the still-incomplete text has just become public, continuing careful analysis will be necessary before we can come to definitive understandings and conclusions. Nonetheless, our very uncertainty lights the road ahead for arduous questioning, ranging from the assumptions of the negotiators to the consequences of implementing the treaty’s provisions.
But before turning to substantive issues, consider two significant process points: Senate timing, and the appropriate level of scrutiny for the Obama-Medvedev text; and the broader potential implications of rejecting it.
There is absolutely no need to rush the Senate-ratification process. Instead, given the strategic issues at stake, precisely the opposite is called for. Obscure phrases in treaty language, even in “technical” annexes, often mask extensive diplomatic bargaining records that must be understood, and the ramifications of seemingly innocuous phrases can be profound. Accordingly, senators must demand adequate time to examine the agreement’s full text, including its protocols and annexes, and hold sufficient hearings and informal briefings, in both open and classified sessions, rather than let themselves be frog-marched to a vote.
If the treaty is as beneficial as Obama claims, if the administration promptly provides the full text that the Senate is being asked to approve, if its language is clear, and if senators’ questions are answered fully and quickly, the question of how much time is required for adequate consideration will resolve itself. Only if it contains dangers and pitfalls that he wants to conceal should President Obama fear a comprehensive review of the agreement and its consequences. If significant questions or ambiguities require more information, then senators are entitled to as much time as necessary to understand the treaty’s implications before voting.
As to the consequences of rejecting the treaty, they are not even vaguely apocalyptic. Senators should understand that saying no to this agreement implies neither opposing all future arms-control agreements nor even opposing a subsequent, modified version of this treaty. Rejecting the text signed in Prague simply requires that negotiators return to the bargaining table, with instructions to Team Obama to do a better job. That is, after all, what the “advice” portion of the Senate’s “advice and consent” power actually means.