The Obama administration’s effort to garner Senate support for ratification of its New START nuclear treaty has met greater-than-expected resistance. This resistance follows primarily from concerns about the loopholes in the treaty’s limits on forces, its narrow but explicit limits on U.S. missile-defense options and non-nuclear strategic missiles, and its significant weakening of START’s past verification provisions. But it may well be that some of the opposition to New START has as much to do with the administration’s mode of promoting the treaty as it has with substance. Senior members of the administration have contributed to the skepticism by engaging in a pattern of mischaracterization and misdirection while simultaneously being disdainful and dismissive of reasonable treaty concerns identified by knowledgeable commentators.
For example, even before Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the treaty in April 2010, some U.S. commentators expressed concern that the administration would agree in New START to limits on U.S. missile defense. Russian commentators fanned this flame by claiming frequently that the treaty would indeed limit U.S. defenses. In response, the administration reassured all that there would be no such limits whatsoever; New START was to be a treaty on strategic offensive forces, not on defensive forces. During an April 29 press conference to explain New START, Ellen Tauscher, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, stated that “the treaty does nothing to constrain missile defenses . . . this treaty is about offensive strategic weapons.” And: “There is no limit or constraint on what the United States can do with its missile defense system.” Further: “There are no constraints to missile defense.”
Yet the actual text of the treaty
shows Russian commentators and U.S. skeptics to be correct: New START’s Article V, paragraph 3, explicitly limits some U.S. missile-defense options, and the treaty establishes a Bilateral Consultative Commission wherein missile defense can be the subject of further ongoing discussions and possible limitation. The administration, however, has repeated the false claim of no limits on missile defense so often and so definitively that it continues to be presented as fact by some journalists and commentators sympathetic to New START.
Several U.S. commentators similarly expressed concerns that the administration would allow Russia to gain limits on prospective U.S. non-nuclear strategic forces under New START. For years, senior military commanders have pressed for non-nuclear strategic forces for “prompt global strike,” and the U.S. Senate specifically warned against any such limits. Under Secretary Tauscher again assured doubters that “there is no effect for prompt global strike in the treaty. Very much like missile defense, it doesn’t have any constraints to it.” The White House fact sheet on New START, posted on March 26, also assured all that “the Treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of . . . current or planned United States long-range conventional strike capabilities.” This carefully nuanced statement is technically correct, but wholly misleading. It would have been impossible to constrain U.S. “current or planned” capabilities for prompt global strike, because no current or planned public program for deployment existed. In fact, the treaty explicitly constrains select options for these future weapons by counting them as if they were strategic nuclear warheads and launchers and limiting them under the treaty’s ceilings on deployed nuclear warheads and launchers.