Politics & Policy

Lame START

Pres. Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both signaled their hope that the Senate will ratify New START during the lame-duck session, before a larger Republican minority can be sworn in. It is vital to our national security that the Senate disappoint them.

The president’s priorities on nuclear arms should be the pursuit of comprehensive missile defense, the modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, and the prevention of rogue states from acquiring WMD. New START does nothing on the last two goals and is actively hostile to the first.

#ad#Instead, what the treaty does is limit the number of deployed “delivery vehicles” — missile silos, aircraft, submarines — to 700 per side, approximately the level the aging Russian nuclear infrastructure is already struggling to maintain. But it does nothing to limit the Russians’ massive stockpile of undeployed warheads — by one estimate, some 8,000 of them — or to cut into their advantage in tactical nuclear weapons designed for use on the field of battle. Meanwhile, it encourages the Russians to “MIRV” their platforms, packing multiple warheads onto a single vehicle, at the same time the Obama administration has unilaterally discontinued that practice in an effort to “to increase stability.”

Unlike the original START, New START leaves whole classes of delivery vehicles, from rail-launched ICBMs to nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, undefined and thus uncontrolled by the treaty. An “understanding” included in the U.S. ratification document presumes that rail-based missiles are covered under the treaty, but such presumptions lack the force of international law. Worse, the Russians are already threatening to back out if the rail-launched “understanding” is not matched by similar language that would prevent us from expanding anti-ballistic capabilities.

This on top of the treaty’s explicit constraints on American missile defense, including a prohibition on the conversion of ICBM launchers into ABM launchers, and language in the preamble that implies the creation of new defensive capabilities is henceforth equivalent to the creation of new nuclear arms. Any one who doubts the Russians will use this as pretext to withdraw from the treaty should the United States improve its defensive posture need only listen to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who said New START “can be viable only provided there are no quantitative or qualitative increases in ABM capabilities.”

Even if New START’s substantive provisions were worth endorsing, its verification regime would not be. It represents a significant step backward from its predecessor in areas such as on-site inspections and information sharing — and that’s just what we know about. On the eve of the September committee vote that sent New START to the full Senate, Sen. Kit Bond (R., Mo.), vice chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a classified letter to the Foreign Relations Committee detailing yet further objections to the treaty’s verification components, and Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho) warned that new intelligence prompted him to question Russian intentions.

Which leaves President Obama’s admirable if naïve commitment to non-proliferation and eventual disarmament as the sole virtue of ratification — in other words, it leaves precisely nothing. Proliferators such as Iran and North Korea will not find the moral force in the president’s example, nor will their strategic imperatives be altered a bit by even a substantially smaller U.S. nuclear arsenal. The former will continue seek a deterrent to the massive conventional superiority of the Great Satan, and the latter will continue to reap the benefits of its plutonium-powered extortion racket.

It goes without saying that Senate Democrats are overwhelmingly behind the president’s pet treaty. Unfortunately, some Senate Republicans, including Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), have also indicated their support. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has signaled he will follow Lugar’s lead and that of Republican whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), on the ultimate ratification vote. Kyl doesn’t share Lugar’s estimation of New START and has doggedly pressed the administration to commit to nuclear-force modernization and to open New START’s negotiating record to Senate scrutiny in advance of a vote. While Senator Kyl’s demands certainly would constitute improvements over the treaty as it stands, they would not be sufficient to salvage this fundamentally defective accord. And, in any case, ramming the treaty through a lame-duck Congress is reckless and unnecessary; the Russians will still be there in January. Senator McConnell should exercise restraint.

At the top of his Thursday cabinet meeting, President Obama said that the debate over the ratification of New START “is not a traditionally Democratic or Republican issue, but, rather, an issue of American national security.” That’s quite right. But it will take a unified Republican caucus to stop New START.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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