President Obama is writing to the wrong people, and those wrong people are hopelessly confused about his power and their own. This is how bad agreements are born.
Senate Republicans could easily kill the wayward New START treaty, and tell the administration to go back to Moscow and cut a deal that promotes American national security. The Constitution disfavors treaties that are not patently in U.S. interests, requiring a two-thirds Senate majority for approval — seven more than the 60-vote threshold generally required to move any contentious legislation through the upper chamber.
Even in this wretched lame-duck session, without the six new Republicans who will join the caucus in two weeks, the GOP’s 42 senators ought to be more than sufficient to stop a bad treaty. Even without a Scoop Jackson Democrat to count on, how tough could it be to prevent nine Republicans from defecting — from saying “yes” to a pact that imperils U.S. missile defenses, does nothing about an aggressive Russia’s huge numerical advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, and creates a sovereignty-sapping “Bilateral Consultative Commission” that would undermine the Constitution’s treaty process by circumventing Senate approval of future restrictions (beyond those in New START) on our national-defense capabilities?
Pretty tough, it turns out.
As is too often the case, Republican senators are taking their foreign-affairs cues from John McCain and Richard Lugar, leaders of the caucus’s moderate wing — which is to say, its incoherent wing. They want to support the treaty because to do so would be bipartisan (yay!), but, dimly perceiving that the treaty is atrocious, they also want to rewrite it.
So we are now watching them play “let’s pretend.” The Senate is pretending that it has the authority to rewrite a treaty, while the president pretends that the unacceptable treaty can be fixed by writing letters to the senators who need courting rather than writing a new treaty with Russian leaders who need convincing.
As reported by National Review’s Robert Costa, this lame-duck weekend featured an amendment offered by Senator McCain to undo New START’s most noxious (but by no means its only noxious) provision, the linkage of strategic-missile reduction and U.S. missile defense. Sen. Jeff Sessions went beyond that, endeavoring wholesale revisions of treaty’s missile-defense terms. Taking “let’s pretend” to new heights of fantasy, Republican senator James Risch tried his hand at crafting a unilateral treaty on tactical nukes. Actually, “non-lateral” would be more accurate: Because tactical weapons are not covered at all in New START, Risch’s exercise would have no more effect on Russia than it would on his state of Idaho.
If we could just put aside that minor inconvenience known as the Constitution, there’s no question that the Republicans are right on the policy. The Russians claim that New START prevents the United States from beefing up protections against missile attacks. That means possible strikes not only by Russia but by the likes of North Korea, Iran, and — if we look into our crystal ball — a Pakistan whose government could fall into jihadist hands, or even, say, an Egypt or Saudi Arabia that goes both jihadist (due to internal revolt) and nuclear (due to Western fecklessness in responding to Iran). And that is to say nothing of nukes, including stray Russian nukes, that could fall into the anxious hands of al-Qaeda or other terror networks.
In support of its interpretation, Russia points to language in the treaty’s preamble. That’s not all: There is much circumstantial corroboration for the Putin/Medvedev position. To avoid upsetting the Russians, the Obama administration has reneged on the U.S. commitment to deploy missile-defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic. It has explicitly limited missile defense in a critical 2010 report in order to avoid disturbing the “strategic balance” with Russia and China (apparently, the administration believes our security somehow hinges on maintaining current threat levels rather than altering them in our favor). And administration officials have refused to disclose the negotiation record for New START, which would allow senators to judge for themselves what makes the Russians think the treaty means what it certainly appears to say.