Politics & Policy

A Poor START

The case for New START is so weak that we’d better hope the fate of the planet doesn’t hinge on it.

Sometime after the Democratic losses in the midterm elections, a funny thing happened to the New START treaty. It became a matter of extreme urgency.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the treaty with Russia a matter of “life and death.” A lefty group cut a “Daisy ad” showing a girl counting flower petals until she’s rudely interrupted by a thermonuclear blast — evidently caused by the failure to ratify New START.

It’s undoubtedly a time of nuclear angst, but Moscow doesn’t have much to do with it. Pyongyang just revealed a vast new uranium-enrichment plant. North Korea’s nuclear program is truly a problem from hell. It’s much easier to execute a pantomime of high-stakes Cold War diplomacy with the Russians and claim to have saved the world.

In his weekly address, Pres. Barack Obama implicitly acknowledged the reflexive nature of the deal. “Since the Reagan years,” Obama said, “every president has pursued a negotiated, verified arms-reduction treaty.” And every one, he noted, has gotten more than 85 votes in the Senate.

This is selective history. The Senate refused to ratify the Salt II treaty signed by Jimmy Carter in 1979, and it rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. If Obama is going to get New START — his sudden rush obviously has to do with avoiding six more Republican senators next year — he’ll have to do it through persuasion rather than sheer assertion.

The case for New START is so weak that we’d better hope the fate of the planet doesn’t hinge on it. It places a limit on strategic warheads of 1,550, and a limit on deployed delivery vehicles — missiles, bombers, submarines — at 700. Even in theory, this isn’t much of a cut in warheads. Under the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, Russia and the United States had already agreed to arsenals of 2,200 to 1,700 each.

Here’s the catch: The Russians are already beneath 700 launchers. The aging of their arsenal, coupled with economic constraints, means that they aren’t going higher regardless. Effectively, New START only mandates cuts on us, and we make concessions to the Russians for the privilege. This is classic Obama chump diplomacy.

The preamble of the treaty notes “the interrelationship” between offensive arms and defenses. Prior to the signing of the treaty, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the linkage “is legally binding.” The Russians want to leverage the treaty into a de facto limit on our defensive capabilities, and given the Obama administration’s attenuated commitment to defenses, the Russian tack is a shrewd one.

The Russians negotiated well. The treaty removes the limits of the old START treaty on how many warheads can be placed on a missile, and it counts a bomber as one weapon no matter how many warheads are loaded on it. The Russian press has reported that these rules will allow the Russians to retain hundreds more strategic warheads than the technical limit.

Our verification regime with the Russians ended with the expiration of the old START treaty last December. The administration did not get a temporary extension with the Russians, and now argues that the verification gap means we must ratify New START posthaste. But the verification provisions of the new treaty are weaker than those of the old, and the administration could always seek new ones via an executive agreement.

In the final analysis, the administration wants the treaty because it thinks it makes the Russians feel good and fosters a “reset.” The benefits of reset are overrated, though. Yes, the Russians voted for the fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran, but only after watering them down along with the Chinese. They have made it clear they won’t support more stringent sanctions outside the U.N.

If Obama wants to butter up Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and his countrymen, surely there are easier ways than with a flawed arms-control treaty. Maybe a bow is in order?

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.

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