In their frenzied attempt to push New START across the Senate finish line before Christmas, Democrats are relying on a strange mix of calm reassurances and ominous warnings. To hear them tell it, the arms-control treaty would not in any way jeopardize U.S. missile-defense programs — but failing to approve it in 2010 would do major damage to bilateral relations with Moscow. Moreover, Democrats argue, the urgency of inspecting Russian nuclear sites demands immediate ratification. None of these claims is persuasive.
This past weekend, 59 senators voted to reject the McCain-Barrasso amendment, which would have purported to remove the following language from the New START preamble: “Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.” Republicans fear that the “interrelationship” language could be used by Moscow to lobby for future limits on U.S. missile-defense capabilities. But Democrats note that the preamble text is nonbinding, and they insist that President Obama’s stated commitment to missile defense will trump any objections raised by the Kremlin.
Here’s the problem with that logic: Russia has vowed to withdraw from New START if America proceeds with an expansion of its antimissile systems. In other words, regardless of how White House officials view the nuclear accord, Moscow clearly sees it as a way to constrain U.S. defensive arms. If Obama were eventually forced to choose between saving the treaty and broadening missile defense, does anyone really believe he would pick the latter? During his first year in office, he slashed the missile-defense budget and ditched longstanding U.S. plans to construct a missile shield in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, he expressed his quixotic desire for “a world without nuclear weapons.” It strains credulity to imagine that Obama would be willing sacrifice his coveted arms-control pact in order to advance U.S. antimissile efforts.
As for Democratic warnings that the defeat of New START — or merely the postponement of its ratification until 2011 — would seriously harm U.S.-Russian relations, Moscow does not seem nearly that exercised. Here is Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to a Russian news agency: “I would not say that the future of our bilateral relations is directly dependent on the outcome of New START ratification hearings.” Other Russian officials have made similar comments. We have our concerns about the Obama “reset” policy, which thus far has yielded very little in the way of Russian help on Iran; has damaged U.S. credibility in Eastern Europe and Eurasia; and has obliged Washington to soft-pedal its criticism of human-rights abuses in a veritable mafia state. But we fully expect the “reset” to move forward in 2011, regardless of when (or if) the Senate ratifies New START.
Finally, verifying the contents of Russia’s nuclear inventory is indeed an important matter of U.S. national security. So why aren’t Democrats pressing for stronger verification and compliance mechanisms? The relevant provisions in New START are substantially weaker than those contained in the original (1991) START agreement. It’s been a full year since U.S. inspectors last visited Russian nuclear facilities. Rather than pass a deeply flawed treaty with inadequate safeguards, senators should take the time to make sure that all loopholes have been closed and all procedural deficiencies have been corrected.
Of course, that would mean delaying a final debate until early 2011, which would trigger a cacophony of Democratic wailing. It was always going to be impossible for New START to receive adequate attention during a lame-duck session. At this late hour, there is no reason for wavering Republicans to buckle under White House pressure. They will get a much better deal next year than they will today. In its current form, the treaty deserves to die. We urge GOP senators to vote accordingly.