Senators Skeptical About New START

Senate Republicans are scrambling votes to block ratification of the nuclear arms reduction treaty signed with Russia last Spring.

What was supposed to be the cornerstone in both President Barack Obama’s nonproliferation agenda and his Russia policy has been awaiting Senate approval for close to five months now. With November’s midterm elections for Congress approaching fast, it seems unlikely that the New START accord will be ratified before the end of the year.

Presidents Obama and Dmitri Medvedev of Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague last April. In accordance with the agreement, which further reduces the number of nuclear warheads held operational by both former Cold War rivals, the Obama Administration is planning to take out of service some thirty missile silos, 34 nuclear bomber aircraft and 56 submarine launch tubes. Most of the bombers will be converted to conventional use. None of the Navy’s fourteen strategic nuclear submarines will be forced into retirement. Rather each will have four of its 24 launchers removed.

All in all, America’s nuclear arsenal remains sizable and well equipped to deter any potential adversary.

That’s not how the political right sees it. In combination with the administration’s pledge not to retaliate with nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states in the event of a conventional weapons attack, some conservatives describe Obama’s nuclear policy as nothing short of bizarre. In the Senate, Republicans are scrambling for votes to defeat the treaty.

Proponents of the treaty have in part themselves to blame, writes Stephen G. Rademaker, former assistant secretary of state, in The Washington Post.

From the outset, proponents of New START have framed the issue as one on which senators must vote either yes or no. And those not in favor of “yes” are acting, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said of former governor Mitt Romney, on the basis of “narrow, uninformed political objections.”

This narrative grossly oversimplifies the way complex treaties typically are addressed in the Senate. In addition to voting yes or no, senators ordinarily are afforded the option of voting “yes, provided…” — with that “provided” consisting of declarations and conditions in the Senate resolution of approval that are designed to remedy concerns about particular aspects of a treaty.

Concerns on the Republican side are plentiful. Many worry about a consultative group established under the treaty, possibly empowered to modify its own mandate and adopt binding restrictions on the United States that could evade Senate review. “Similarly,” notes Rademaker, “many are concerned that, unlike previous agreements, New START appears not to limit certain types of Russian missiles. The Obama Administration insists that both sides intend for such missiles to be covered by the treaty.” Unsurprisingly, the opposition isn’t persuaded by a mere assurance. A Senate resolution conditioning ratification on Russia’s confirmation that it agrees with the administration’s assertion might take care of that, according to Rademaker.

“Working with the critics to address their concerns could pave the way for a strong bipartisan vote in favor of New START,” concludes Rademarker. “This would, however, require a level of patience and respect for dissenting views that has not been in evidence.”

And patience is running out on both sides. After the prolonged negotiation process that saw the Russians objecting to the construction of an American missile shield in Central Europe, Moscow has been more assertive in recent weeks, following unilateral US sanctions against Iran and renewed intentions to bring NATO allies formerly part of the Soviet Union under the American defense umbrella.