The media are pushing hard to help President Obama succeed in getting the Senate to ratify the New Start Treaty with Russia. Weekend talk shows were filled with Obama administration officials, primarily Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, talking about the urgency for the Senate to ratify the treaty during the lame duck session. But instead of trying to enlighten the viewers by having the objections to ratification answered, the thrust of the questioning by the media has been to make the objections by the Republicans appear to be all about politics, and defeating Obama, even if it means damaging the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
We need to ratify it, we hear, because Russia is helping us with Iran, and they are helping us in Afghanistan. We’ll be spending enough to adequately modernize our remaining nuclear arsenal, we’re told. And our right to build missile defense as we desire will not be limited. Plus, we don’t have anyone on the ground to verify what the Russians are up to. Vice President Biden said that “Failure to pass the New START Treaty this year would endanger our national security.” So what could be the objection, other than raw politics by the Republicans?
Christiane Amanpour, on ABC’s “This Week with Christiane Amanpour,” for example, played the role of an attorney leading her witness—in this case Chairman Mullen—through all the reasons this must be ratified now, concluding with, “So by a process of elimination, is the Senate playing politics with American national security?” Here is that portion of the transcript:
AMANPOUR: The president and the president of Russia have signed the New START treaty. This week, that has been sort of stopped, stopping START in the Senate by the number-two Republican senator there, Jon Kyl. Can I ask you — I’m basically going to wave around a veritable “who’s who” of Republican and Democratic former secretaries of state, of defense, all sorts of people who have been studying this for a long time and say that this has to be ratified. Does it have to be ratified? Is this necessary for U.S. national — national security?
MULLEN: I think this is — more than anything else, it’s a national security issue. I was involved extensively in the negotiations with my counterpart in Russia. We have for decades had treaties with them to — to be able to — to verify aspects of the nuclear weapons capabilities that we both have. And from a national security perspective, this is absolutely critical.
AMANPOUR: So when it comes to the military impact of this treaty, are you convinced that all the military issues have been dealt with and the United States would be no weaker or a in no worse place if this was ratified?
MULLEN: Completely comfortable with where we are militarily, myself, the rest of the uniformed leadership, as well as the secretary of defense.
AMANPOUR: And the intelligence agencies have signed off on all the verification procedures and measures? You’re comfortable with that?
MULLEN: Absolutely. The verification regime that exists in this is in ways better than the one that has existed in the past. Some criticize that there are fewer inspections; the arsenal is much smaller than it used to be. We are close to one year without any ability to verify what’s going on in Russia.
AMANPOUR: And you’re comfortable with the amount of money that the president and the administration has pledged to modernize American nuclear arsenals?
MULLEN: I have. I reviewed it — I’ve reviewed it several times. And it is a very clear commitment to modernize the nuclear infrastructure in this country.
AMANPOUR: So by a process of elimination, is the Senate playing politics with American national security?
MULLEN: Well, you’d have to ask the Senate about that.
AMANPOUR: What do you think?
On Tuesday’s “Daily Rundown” on MSNBC, Savannah Guthrie questioned Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell (scroll to 3:28). Again, all of her questions were aimed at the politics, none at the substance. She began, “Does Secretary Gates agree with, essentially what President Obama said, which is that the Republican opposition right now amounts to nothing more than politics, given that the administration says it met the concerns that Senator Kyl and others have raised?”
There are plenty of objections, and it would be really helpful if instead of spending time asking these people to blast the Republicans for acting out of narrow political interests rather than national security interests, that they ask them to specifically rebut some of the criticisms.
And if this was so important, and such a good thing for the country, why not bring it to a vote before the election, and put Republicans on the defensive? Instead, this is one more thing the Democrats decided to hold off till the lame duck session, hoping that they can keep all of their members, including the defeated and retiring senators, on board. And that they can shame or cajole enough Republicans to sign on to reach the required 67 votes needed for ratification.
Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, in the lead editorial, listed the other items that Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he wants to pass in this lame duck session. They include “a food safety bill, the immigration Dream Act, a repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ for gays in the military, a 9/11 rescue workers relief act, a spending bill for fiscal 2011, an extension of some Bush tax cuts and estate tax reform. Oh, and the New Start nuclear treaty with the Russians.”
James Woolsey, who served as an adviser to the Salt I negotiations and was involved in a number of other such negotiations, as well as being President Clinton’s first CIA director, has raised a number of objections in an article in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).
“A number of years negotiating arms-control agreements with the Soviets,” wrote Woolsey, “taught me that, when dealing with Russian counterparts, don’t appear eager—friendly yes, eager never. Regrettably, the Obama administration seems to have become eager for a deal in its negotiations on the follow-on treaty to the recently expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start). Hopes for a boost in efforts to ‘reset’ relations with Russia, and for progress toward the president’s dream of a world without nuclear weapons, apparently combined to trump prudent negotiating strategy.”
So what are some of his objections?
“Why has the administration agreed to a treaty that limits our nonnuclear long-range weapons and runs the risk of constraining our missile defenses? And why did the treaty end up with verification provisions substantially more lax than those negotiated in the 1991 Start treaty?”
Woolsey writes that “The Russians are engaging in a comprehensive modernization of their nuclear forces, which senior Russian military officials say is their top priority. We cannot deal effectively with them or with the growing number of nuclear-weapon states around the world if we are strategically weaker, undefended and clueless about our adversaries’ capabilities.”
He goes on to express great concern about verification, our own modernization, and U.S. “plans not only to maintain the current program to deploy effective missile defenses in Europe, but also to improve the missile-defense system now deployed to defend the U.S. against long-range threats.”
“Lastly,” he advises, “the Senate should demand that the administration negotiate a binding limitation on Russian sub-launched cruise missiles, as was the case with the first Start treaty. At the same time that the Russians are preparing to deploy a new 5,000 kilometer sub-launched cruise missile, it is inexplicable that the administration would seek no limitations over systems such as these.”
Woolsey concludes that “With adequate attention to the country’s strategic needs and written guarantees thereof, the administration may be able to secure Senate approval of New Start. But it will be unlikely to succeed if it denigrates or ignores legitimate Senate concerns and continues on the path it has taken so far.”
In addition, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy has brought together a group of 15 former U.S. Senators, including AIM Special Contributor Bob Smith. They have all signed a letter which raises some of the same issues that James Woolsey raised, and made the point that “never before in American history has the Senate seen fit to exercise its constitutional responsibility to provide quality control on treaties by effectively rubber-stamping a major strategic arms treaty in a lame-duck session.”
The Journal editorial calls New Start “a relatively minor treaty that lacks the nuclear high drama of the Cold War era,” and points out that “Russia is no longer an adversary.”
It concludes that “The larger issue is whether Mr. Obama still conceives of New Start as the first step toward his dream of total nuclear disarmament.” If so, they argue, “then it is crucial that Republicans use their leverage on New Start to lock in Mr. Obama’s commitments on nuclear modernization and missile defense so he can’t later trade those away too. Republicans should take their time and follow Ronald Reagan’s advice to trust but verify—not so much Russian promises as Mr. Obama’s.”