Politics & Policy

New START Mischaracterization and Misdirection

The Obama administration dismisses legitimate concerns about the treaty.

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.

The pattern of mischaracterization and misdirection is not limited to the two critical issues of missile defense and non-nuclear strategic forces. Soon after the treaty text became available, several commentators observed that rail-mobile ICBMs, an old Russian favorite, were not specifically defined in the treaty for limitation, as they had been in the previous START agreement. This raised the concern that rail-mobile ICBMs had been carefully excluded from the treaty’s limits. Administration officials and treaty supporters in general dismissed this concern as absurd. Yet when the Senate demanded that the U.S. specifically state that the treaty does indeed limit rail-mobile ICBMs, Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the Russian Duma (parliament) committee responsible for treaties, stated in response that such a U.S. claim compelled the Duma to stop action on the treaty. He noted critically, “The Americans are trying to apply the New START Treaty to rail-mobile ICBMs in case they are built.” Apparently, this problem identified early on by some U.S. commentators is not so outlandish.

The pattern of mischaracterization and misdirection also extends to the repeated administration claims that New START will reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads by “about 30 percent below the 2200 maximum that was in the 2002 Moscow treaty.” However, the specific terms of the treaty actually permit the number of nuclear weapons to move higher than the 2,200 maximum under the previous Moscow Treaty because under New START all of the weapons on a bomber would count as only one warhead, even though some bombers are capable of carrying many more. A Russian strategic expert, Mikhail Barabanov, described this sleight of hand regarding New START’s supposed reductions as “nothing short of fraudulent, and clearly designed to mislead the public.”

Similarly, the Obama administration has made much of the fact that New START requires reductions not only in nuclear warheads, but in the number of strategic launchers (ICBMs, bombers, and submarine tubes) carrying those warheads. A fact that the administration typically has left unsaid in this regard, however, is that according to Russia’s own count of its strategic launchers as presented in the open press, Russia is already well below New START’s launcher limits and headed lower — with or without the treaty. In short, New START’s strategic-launcher limits impose reductions only on the United States. Sen. Kit Bond (R., Mo.) made this point during a speech on November 18; the State Department immediately responded with a continuation of mischaracterization and misdirection, stating: “The Treaty does not force the United States to reduce unilaterally. Rather the Treaty imposes equal limits on both parties.” Here the administration rightly claims that New START mandates common limits on strategic launchers, but erroneously denies the fact that the United States alone must reduce its number of launchers to meet those limits — Russia would have to build up its forces to do so. Finally, the administration now claims that the lame-duck Senate must ratify New START immediately, lest U.S. national security be seriously endangered. Yet Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated repeatedly that Russia poses no military threat to us or our allies. This bit of illogic remains unexplained, and even the Washington Post labels such administration claims of urgency as “more than a little overstated” and “hyperbole.”

Perhaps the administration’s apparent treaty mischaracterization and misdirection would be less noxious if it were not also so entirely dismissive of the concerns raised by U.S. commentators. Unfortunately, there are numerous illustrations of this behavior. For example, the list of those who were afforded the privilege of testifying on New START in Senate hearings was roughly ten-to-one in favor of New START proponents — and not for the lack of thoughtful skeptics who could have been invited. An assistant secretary of state reportedly observed that no one with any “pedigree” has raised concerns about New START. This dismissive characterization manages to be simultaneously arrogant and self-evidently nonsensical when notables such as James Woolsey (the director of central intelligence under President Clinton), former under secretary of state Robert Joseph, and former under secretary of defense Eric Edelman have raised serious concerns about the treaty. In addition, under secretary Tauscher has labeled concerns about the treaty as “red herrings” while in testimony before the Senate on June 17 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that those expressing concerns “just don’t believe in arms control treaties at all and from my perspective are very unfortunately slanting a lot of what they say.” So dismissing skeptics’ concerns has been the administration’s consistent mode of operation with regard to its promotion of New START — ironic given its pattern of mischaracterization and misdirection and its calls for bipartisanship.

Politics is a tough business, and as Pres. Harry Truman famously observed, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Treaty skeptics do not expect the administration to greet their concerns with cheers, but the administration might ultimately fare better with New START and advance arms control a step if it shifted its mode of operation and instead engaged concerns about the treaty seriously and thoughtfully.

— Keith B. Payne is professor and head of the graduate department of defense and strategic studies, Missouri State University (Washington Campus), and former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Keith B. PayneMr. Payne is head of the department of defense and strategic studies at Missouri State University and a member of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. His is the author of The Great American Gamble:  Deterrence Theory and Practice From the Cold War to the 21st Century.


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