Is the New START treaty a dead duck in lame-duck session?

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 17 2010 4:05 PM

Nukes Go Rogue

Is the START treaty a dead duck in lame-duck session?

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It's a modest treaty. The 1,550 nukes it proposes keeping is a long way from zero, but it's the next step forward, at least.

Since Obama has not shown real leadership on this issue, the ratification process has been presided over by that strategic genius, Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee, who let Republicans on his committee add so many "unilateral understandings," "conditions," and "declarations," whoring after a minimally bipartisan vote. Even so, he managed to produce a document which got only four Republicans to vote yes.

It is not uncommon for members of a Senate committee considering a treaty to—rather than simply vote yes or no—add their own "understandings" of what the treaty provisions really mean, and even make "declarations" about aspects of it. None of which is binding on the other party, but which can make opponents of ratification think they've scored some points. Kerry used this process to appease fence-sitting Republicans, producing in the process a nightmarish 10-page document, "A Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification," that may satisfy Republican concerns (over the sanctity of ballistic missile defense, among other things), but that may also end up being a "poison pill" if the Russian legislature (or—who are we kidding?—Putin and Medvedev) feels the Obama administration was caving in to missile-defense hawks after the treaty had been signed.

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Indeed, this 10-page document—almost completely unread, it seems, by the media—is an astonishingly self-subverting document that has already begun to cause trouble. The day after the U.S. election, the Russian Duma's equivalent of the Senate foreign affairs committee, which had previously endorsed ratification of the treaty, did a total 180 and withdrew its endorsement, citing among other things Kerry's committee's unilateral "understandings," which in fact they did not share, and which they regarded with some justification as unilateral attempts to distort or even amend the treaty by the U.S. side. Particularly those parts of it involving Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) which suggest American nuclear hawks may still have a Star Wars gleam in their eyes.

Missile defense may be a deal-breaker for the Russians, who have always seen it as an offensive capacity. In other words, a foe is more likely to try a first-strike, surprise attack if it feels it has a defense against ballistic missile retaliation. The Russians have declared they'll withdraw from the treaty if they feel we're using its language to mask a BMD program.

So here's the state of play as the lame-duck session gets underway. Obama administration officials such as Hillary Clinton and Ellen Tauscher have given what might charitably be called weakly hopeful statements that it sure would be great if the lame-duck session would ratify the treaty—but in a manner that suggests they don't know, after all this time, whether they still have the votes. It could be voted down.

On the other hand, if it's not voted on in the lame duck session, it's virtually good as dead in next January's new Congress. They're damned if they do, damned if they don't.

And they may be damned whatever they do because Kerry's "Resolution," with its many off-ramps out of the treaty if anything displeases us, will be unacceptable to the other side and is likely to kill the treaty before we even get around to killing it ourselves. The treaty might have already been iced by the publication of the Kerry document. And since the treaty has to go back to the foreign affairs committee with a heavier Republican lineup in a new Congress, it's bound to get even worse.

One expert who worked on the treaty and ratification told me he still feels it could pass in the lame-duck session, but that he thinks Obama's election setback meant "the deal was still on but the price went up." In other words, the Obama administration will have to add more money for planning a new generation of nukes to the billions he's already pledged, in order to satisfy the opposition. If it can possibly be satisfied any more.

If you think I'm exaggerating about the problems the Kerry document can cause, here's one of the milder "conditions" Kerry's committee has tacked on to its pseudo-ratification. As the Kerry resolution puts it in Section A, Paragraph 5, Subsection B, the U.S. denies any obligation to tell the Russians about "any satellite launches, missile defense sensor targets and missile defense intercept targets, the launch of which uses the first stage of an existing type of United States ICBM or SLBM listed in paragraph 8 of Article III of the New Start treaty." In other words, with this "condition" they're trying unilaterally to obtain something they couldn't get in the bilateral negotiations: the ability to secretly devise a BMD system and spring it full-blown on the Russians any time we want, without even hinting we were testing one. That's certainly what I would be thinking if I were in the Russian Duma.

This is just one example of the offensive language about defensive technology that may well damn the treaty to doom in the Duma even if the Senate were to pass it. Things get even worse when Sen. Kerry's botched resolution addresses our right to use our nuclear missiles to deliver non-nuclear weapons. The whole thing is a nightmare of counterproductivity.

My feeling is that Obama should make this—which frankly is more important than health care—his last stand, his chance to turn things around not just for himself but for history, for the planet, for the sake of fewer missiles going rogue in a far more threatening way. The downside, the failure, the crash and burn of his dream will be too demoralizing if he doesn't fight for it. We've never come this close or seemed so far away.

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