Obama Faces Major Test With New START
Friday, Nov. 19, 2010
Failure to push through a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control treaty could have significant consequences for President Obama, the New York Times reported yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 18).
Obama yesterday pledged to push for ratification of the New START treaty this year, amid escalating signs that GOP senators want to delay consideration until 2011 — when they would have an increased membership in the chamber.
“It is a national security imperative that the United States ratify the New Start treaty this year,” Obama said during a meeting of sitting administration officials and past Cabinet members who support the pact, including Republican administration Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. “There is no higher national security priority for the lame-duck session of Congress.”
Obama, who left yesterday for the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, said Vice President Joseph Biden would strive “day and night” on the matter.
Should a vote occur this year, Obama will recoup some of the clout that evaporated in the bruising midterm election in which Democrats lost ground in the Senate and control of the House of Representatives, according to the Times. Should a vote be pushed back to next year, it would be another sign in this country and others of his reduced power.
“It’s really high stakes,” said Reagan administration national security aide Geoffrey Kemp. “I would say it’s the biggest gamble he’s taken so far, certainly on foreign policy.”
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty in April. The pact would require the two nations to cap their deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550, down from a limit of 2,200 required by 2012 under an earlier treaty. It also would set a ceiling of 700 deployed warhead delivery systems, with another 100 allowed in reserve.
At least 67 senators must approve ratification for the treaty to enter into force. In this Congress, that requires support from no fewer than nine Republican senators. The administration beginning in January would need 14 Republican yes votes.
Senator Richard Lugar (Ind.) is the only Republican senator to overtly call for a vote this year. The GOP point man on the issue, Senator Jon Kyl (Ariz.) has said there is not enough time in the lame-duck session to consider the treaty. Ten Republican senators thought to be leaning toward approving the pact said they were still considering their position or were awaiting word from Kyl. Another four failed to reply to a survey, possibly further indicating Kyl’s authority on the matter.
Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who voted to move the treaty ratification resolution out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said a vote should not occur this year, as did 10 senators-elect in a letter (Peter Baker, New York Times, Nov. 18).
“There just isn’t time,” Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told the Wall Street Journal. The agenda for the lame-duck session already includes food-safety legislation, immigration, the federal budget and other matters, the newspaper reported.
Observers and insiders, though, warned that the treaty’s failure would have ripple effects in the U.S.-Russian relationship, possibly affecting efforts to address Iran’s contested nuclear program and to potentially curb tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
“This is not so much about weakening Obama anymore, but about a weakening of the United States,” according to one European diplomat. “Europe will say the United States is no longer ready to shape international law” (Jonathan Weisman, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 19).
The treaty “could be delayed indefinitely” if action is not taken this year, said lead White House arms control official Gary Samore. That means the suspension of nuclear inspections and other verification activities that began after the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expired last year would continue, producing “a greater likelihood you could get into an arms race” (see related GSN story, today).
Opponents argue that the administration is exaggerating the effects of pushing back the vote, according to the Times. They wonder about Obama’s commitment to modernizing the U.S. nuclear-weapon complex — a key sticking point for GOP support for the pact — given that the administration only provided its new budget plan a week ago. That proposal calls for spending more than $84 billion over the next decade (Baker, New York Times).
Observers in Russia are at a loss to understand why the treaty might fail in the United States, the Washington Post reported.
“The result will by no means be nuclear catastrophe,” said former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov,”but there will undoubtedly be negative results, and not just for U.S.-Russian relations.”
“It would be pretty difficult to expect true cooperation between Russia and NATO” should the treaty die, said Sergei Rogov, head of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies.
Hopes for cooperation on Iran could be another victim, argued military analyst Alexander Golts.
“From the beginning, Russia has looked at Iran as a good card to play with the U.S. Cooperation on Iran can be the real victim of a failure to ratify the treaty,” he said (Kathy Lally, Washington Post, Nov. 18).
U.S. intelligence officials are warning lawmakers that additional spy satellites would be needed to watch Russia if the new treaty and its nuclear verification measures are not instituted, the Washington Times reported. That would mean fewer orbiters could be used to keep an eye on nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Having the inspections (in New START) will allow us to focus our resources on other targets right now,” one intelligence source told the newspaper.
However, the United States will need more verification than the 18 visits allowed each year under the pact, argued Paula DeSutter, Bush administration assistant secretary of State for verification, compliance and implementation.
“Our overall satellite capability is not what it used to be and not what it ought to be,” she said. “Eighteen spot inspections a year is not going to fill the gap left by inadequate [national technical means] capabilities. If we want better coverage of Russia’s strategic threats, we are going to have to launch more satellites” (Eli Lake, Washington Times, Nov. 19).