The dead end of Obama's no-nukes dream?

Scrutinizing culture.
March 8 2010 5:19 PM

Zero Hour for Zero

Will the START treaty be the dead end of Obama's no-nukes dream?

(Continued from Page 1)

Only those few little issues involved the stubborn problems of inspection and verification, and the Polish concession hadn't made a difference because now the Russians wanted the right to inspect the sea-based missiles that were to be substituted for the Polish interceptors and the Americans were having some problems with that, too. They didn't want any ballistic missile defense, or BMD, restrictions. The American negotiators knew that any concession that restricted BMD was anathema to the GOP, and would likely kill hopes of any treaty ratification by the two-thirds majority necessary. (No "nuclear option" for the nuclear option, so to speak.) Can you say "stalemate"?

And then out of the blue we learned that the Obama Pentagon was announcing last week that it was going to be installing interceptor missiles in Romania, of all places.

When the Russians protested, the Pentagon explained that the Romanian interceptors would only have a range of 900 kilometers and could not reach Russia's borders, which—surprise—the Russians did not find very reassuring.

Indeed, the timing and substance of the Romanian announcement may go down in nuclear history, should anyone be alive to write it, as the single stupidest act in the entire negotiation process and will perhaps sound the death knell for Obama's dream of Zero. Or, at least, stop the START follow-on.

Didn't it occur to someone in the Pentagon that the whole idea of missile bases of any kind and missiles of any range in Eastern Europe was anathema to the Russians? Having lost tens of millions of people to Hitler's panzers last century in that neighborhood, they turned out to be still touchy. Imagine!

In my August Slate piece, I had argued that Obama needed a "Zero czar" if he were to whip the entrenched nuclear establishment into line behind his dream of Zero. A zero czar might have averted the potentially fatal Romanian mistake.

Meanwhile, I was informed that "sources" in Washington were spinning or being spun by the idea that a speech by Joe Biden would change everything. (As if!) Biden's speech, the word was, would give the Republicans in the Senate more reason to vote to ratify a treaty (that had, needless to say, still not been signed and looked like it never would) by giving the Republicans nuclear "goodies" they wanted such as renewal of the "infrastructure" of our bomb-making capacity. And, indeed, Biden made a speech in which he trumpeted a puny 10 percent increase ($624 million) for renewing the physical and intellectual infrastructure of our nuclear capacity, but not the grail of the GOP, the "Reliable Replacement Warhead," a new generation of high-tech nuclear warheads they'd been lobbying for unsuccessfully since the beginning of the Bush administration.

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The Biden speech was widely ignored, except for those arms-control advocates, like James Acton, who told me it epitomized a recurrent flaw in the Obama administration's negotiating strategy—both with the Russians and the GOP—that was to give pre-emptive concessions (like Poland, like "infrastructure") in bargaining which the other side would then pocket and then ask for more.

Still, the negotiators and their spinners tried to crank up the START follow-on optimism. On March 2, those of us who followed the global security newswire were told there is new hope!

Russian Leader Optimistic on START Progress

Russia and the United States are "close to agreement on practically all questions" over a pending successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired in December, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday... Medvedev... suggested his nation and the United States could soon reach agreement on a successor to a key Cold War-era nuclear arms control treaty...

"In essence, we have reached the final part of negotiations," Reuters quoted Medvedev as saying. "I hope these negotiations will be finished in the very near future."

Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama pledged last July to cut their nations' respective strategic arsenals to between 1,500 and 1,675 deployed nuclear warheads under the new treaty. Negotiators have reportedly also agreed to reduce each state's arsenal of nuclear delivery vehicles — missiles, submarines and bombers — to between 700 and 800, down from the 1,100-vehicle limit set by the leaders.

After wrapping up a one-month negotiation session Saturday, Russian and U.S. officials plan to reconvene March 9 in Geneva, Switzerland, "with the aim of finalizing the future treaty and presenting it for signing by the presidents of Russia and the United States," the Russian Foreign Ministry stated yesterday (Denis Dyomkin, Reuters, March 1).

Oh, Dmitry, stop being a tease! I'm beginning to wonder whether the whole thing has been a con game to make the United States look foolish. He "hopes" the negotiations will be completed in the "very near future." Just like they were going to be completed in several "very near futures" past. But now we've reached "the final part." But, wait, I thought we'd already gotten there, "95 percent" of the way two months ago. But two months of intense negotiations had failed to close that 5 percent gap?

In other words, minus the bogus spin, the first round of the Geneva negotiations have been a failure, and there's no reason to believe the next round, which has the "aim of finalizing the treaty" when the negotiators reconvene March 9 in Geneva, will do any better. Not after all the false hope and groundless optimism they've been feeding us since July '09. Now we're told further negotiations aim to wind up in April and present the treaty to the presidents of the United States and Russia sometime in May. Well, maybe it will happen. Keep hope alive and all that.

But the next GSN report—and the last one as I write (I have to kick my addiction to this charade at some point, but since I am working on a book about the new nuclear age, it's hard not to chronicle the slow-motion car wreck)—was dated March 3 and we learned that all the optimistic bonhomie actually concealed something "tough," and, worse, there were "niggling details" to be resolved: "Work on the pact has been 'very tough,' but 'I think we can do it,' said a U.S. official familiar with the talks," according to the GSN report. "The nations remained divided over terms for monitoring compliance with the pact, such as the use of audits to check the other side's nuclear-armed missiles, the official said. 'There are still some niggling technical details,' the source said."

As any student of negotiations knows, when you get to the point where you've spent a year haggling over "niggling details," the details are not "niggling."

What has gone wrong? Who's to blame? Is it zero hour for Zero or is Zero already dead?

I had a fascinating conversation with Carnegie's James Acton about these questions and the speculations that surround them. One theory going the rounds, he said, is that Vladimir Putin doesn't want to let Dmitry Medvedev to cover himself in worldwide glory (and thus bolster his stature viz-à-viz Vlad within Russia) by getting a nuclear treaty signed. And so Putin has allowed his minions among the Russian negotiators to raise objection after objection to the treaty. Almost all of them focusing on ballistic missile defense, which, ever since Star Wars, makes the Russians go ballistic.

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