|New START and the Specter of Partisanship|
|Written by Roundtable Magazine|
|Saturday, April 23, 2011 01:27 PM|
The balance of national politics has grown only more uncertain since the Republicans retook the House of Representatives last November, and it has become evident that every item on President Barack Obama’s agenda will prove to be a strenuous battle of its own. However, this is rarely expected in foreign policy, where politics is said to end at the water’s edge. For that reason, the White House did not anticipate the difficult Senate fight over the ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), a longtime high-priority goal for the Administration.
After the president and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty in Prague last April, Obama had hoped that this START treaty, like those that came before it, could be readily accepted by both parties; even bitter enemies could come together on this. And yet, after months of negotiations and deals between the White House and Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), the GOP’s point man on START, the senator surprised everyone and announced after the midterm elections that the treaty was unlikely to receive his support.
New START received the overwhelming support from the U.S. military, allied governments in Western and Eastern Europe, and even from former Reagan and Bush senior administration officials. Few issues are as cut and dry as this one, and therefore the circumstances surrounding START were not those of a national security debate, but instead a most blatant game of partisan duplicity.
Still, the White House spent months working to convince any skeptics that the treaty deserved ratification. Unlike the START treaties that came before it, which were ratified quickly and nearly unanimously, New START carefully made its way through the Senate hearing process last summer. The Senate Foreign Relations Com- mittee diligently questioned endless bipartisan commissions and panels of military and foreign policy experts, who responded to concerns about missile defense and treaty verification thoroughly and effectively.
Any legitimate doubt had long been removed by their testimony, which is why in September, the Committee voted 14-4 in support of the treaty. It earned the votes of Republican Sen- ators Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia), hardly moderates in the Republican caucus.
The treaty had been embraced for many significant reasons. It implements a modest decrease in the American and Russian nuclear arsenals. Although this decrease is insufficient to shift the status quo of deterrence, it still acts as a powerful symbolic move toward securing the weapons from theft and terrorism and toward a faraway future safe from nuclear annihilation.
The treaty also returns weapons inspectors to nuclear sites after an entire year of their absence following the expiration of the first START treaty. Critics had claimed that the treaty lacks the verification methods necessary for proper implementation, but this accusation lacks credibility for two reasons. First, field experts confidently affirmed the strength of the treaty on these fronts in their testimonies. Second, without this treaty, we would have had no verification capabilities at all. We would lack any assured means to protect nuclear materials scattered across the Russian Federation, and we would be forced to focus all of our technical means on Russian facilities instead of where they belong: concentrated on real risks like North Korea or Iran.
This fundamental truth lies at the heart of the differences between START’s countless supporters and its few, confused opponents who harbor a Cold War unwillingness to accept Russia as a partner in any form. It is unsurprising that when discussing START, Republican opponents such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) don’t even notice when they warn against “missiles fired by the Soviet Union.” Clearly, they would acknowledge this wording as a slip of the tongue, that they are well aware of the fall of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago. But it is more evident that they have failed to absorb the vast changes in global politics since that time.
They have ignorantly left their heads stuck in the sands of the Cold War—in a simplified narrative of evil empires—instead of acknowledging the good that can be achieved from cooperation. President Obama has made real progress over the past year in negotiations about the Russian opposition to Iranian nuclear ambitions, but these Republicans are more content to talk tough than to back rhetoric with action. Without START, they would see their Cold War dreams realized as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had suggested that ratification failure would force Russia to build its nuclear stockpile.
The White House negotiated with Senate Republicans beyond all reasonable expectation. Sen. Kyl demanded a massive overhaul of the US nuclear arsenal, and President Obama delivered, thanks to an unprecedented reach into this year’s budget, assuring him nearly $85 billion for weapons modernization. Kyl also indicated that his support for the treaty depended on Democratic support for an extension of the Bush tax cuts, effectively tying vital national security priorities with unrelated and controversial political goals. Kyl managed to delay the vote until the new Senate could be seated in January, when the Democrats would have fewer assured votes.
Lugar, the ranking member and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Com-mittee, called Kyl’s bluff: “Every senator has an obligation in the national security interest to take a stand, to do his or her duty. Maybe peo- ple would prefer not to do his or her duty right now. Sometimes when you prefer not to vote, you attempt to find reasons not to vote,” he said. He called on his colleagues to stand up and be counted, to support the treaty as they should, or at least admit that they do not, instead of the illu- sion that they need more time for deliberation.
With Lugar’s help, President Obama and Vice President Biden waged a high-profile campaign against the skeptical senators, drawing attention to their indecision. On December 22, the Senate finally came to a vote, and remarkably, approved the treaty 71-26, including thirteen Republican “yea” votes. President Obama hailed the treaty as “the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades” as well as a victory for bipartisanship.
The historic nature of this victory cannot be understated. And yet, despite every reason to support it, START was never, until its final passage, a sure thing. Every Republican “yea” vote was won with immeasurable research, pressure and determination. Too often, the sort of partisan deception that nearly killed START dominates unnoticed, below the radar of most Americans. Until we start to pay attention, the Obama Administration should expect many more tough fights ahead. And that’s too bad. There are so many real debates to be had; we cannot afford to invent an imaginary one.