Democrats are complaining that the debate over New START — the U.S.-Russia arms-control pact signed last April — has become regrettably politicized. They’re right, although not in the way they suggest.
The Obama administration is desperate to secure Senate ratification while the GOP caucus has 42 members (its current size), as opposed to 47 (its size as of January 3). A more Republican Senate means more White House concessions to Jon Kyl and other skeptics of the nuclear deal. Hence the aggressive effort to cajole Republicans into passing the treaty before they leave town for Christmas. And hence the media-assisted campaign to demonize New START critics as baleful obstructionists motivated by raw partisanship.
Publicly, of course, the administration says that lame-duck approval of the treaty is necessitated by the urgency of verifying Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But this argument is unpersuasive, and wavering Republicans should not be seduced by it.
Even the Washington Post editorial page, which favors ratification of New START, has acknowledged that “no calamity will befall the United States if the Senate does not act this year.” The original START treaty expired in December 2009, meaning that a full year has elapsed since American inspection teams last visited Russian nuclear sites. In a world two decades removed from the Cold War, this twelve-month interval brought no disastrous consequences. The idea that failing to ratify New START during the lame duck “would endanger our national security” (as Vice President Biden recently declared) is simply nonsense. Yes, monitoring Russian nukes is an important task that demands careful attention, especially given Moscow’s long track record of nuclear duplicity. Unfortunately, New START contains substantially weaker verification mechanisms than its 1991 predecessor. All the more reason not to rush to ratify. Senators should thoroughly examine the treaty’s compliance provisions and seek to ensure that loopholes are closed and deficiencies amended. Such a meticulous review will take time and most likely cannot be completed within the next three weeks.
Nor can concerns about missile defense be adequately resolved immediately. Either New START would fundamentally limit U.S. missile-defense capabilities (Moscow’s position), or it would not (Obama’s position): The White House and the Kremlin cannot both be right in their interpretations. As nuclear expert Keith Payne and others have noted, the treaty text indicates that Russia’s interpretation is the correct one. In any case, the level of ambiguity and confusion surrounding this issue is yet another reason why New START should not be bulldozed through the Senate. (We oppose its ratification at all, and have expressed reservations that go well beyond missile defense and verification, as we’ve noted here and here.)
To its credit, the Obama administration has lately expressed a willingness to modernize America’s nuclear inventory, thanks in large part to the dogged persistence of Senator Kyl, the GOP’s intellectual leader on matters of nuclear policy. Yet the strength of Obama’s commitment to modernization remains uncertain. After all, the president has identified “a world without nuclear weapons” as his ultimate goal. Republicans may be forgiven if they doubt the sincerity of his promises to upgrade U.S. warheads and wonder if the funding for the project will ever materialize.
Regardless of when or whether Congress forges an agreement on the Bush tax cuts, any final Senate vote on New START should wait until 2011. If Republicans such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Bob Corker are sincere in their concerns about the treaty — and we believe they are — they should resist White House pressure to support lame-duck ratification. They should tell the White House it’s better to address New START properly than to address it quickly.