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The new nuclear arms treaty hangs in the balance as Senator Kyl moves to deny Obama a political victory—even if he damages U.S. national security. By Leslie H. Gelb.
Cast aside any doubts. There seems to be nothing Republicans won’t do to deny President Obama a political success at home—even if it means jeopardizing U.S. national security. Namely, future relations with Russia. To be specific, Republicans, led by Senator Jon Kyl, look as though they are trying to kill the new strategic-arms limitation treaty between Russia and the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) speaks during a meeting on the New START treaty as (2ndL-R) former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Vice Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James E. Cartwright and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Their arguments—against the treaty, which sets lower limits on nuclear arms held by the two nuclear giants and reestablishes critical American inspection rights inside Russia—are totally without merit. That’s a charge I hardly ever level because it’s so serious. But in this case, it is more than justified. Signed about six months ago, the treaty does not do a great deal to curb nuclear arms on either side. But it is the essential element in efforts by Obama to “reset,” or firm up and increase the benefits of, relations with Russia. To put it simply, Russia can still do us significant harm or good on issues like Iran. And if the White House can’t deliver a treaty ratified by at least 67 Senate votes, Moscow will write off the United States. As Obama said on Thursday, passage of the treaty this year is a “national-security imperative.”
That’s not idle presidential chatter. His words are backed by the most senior and experienced Americans, Republicans and Democrats, who have worked in the most important positions for presidents of the United States for decades. This star-studded list includes: James A. Baker, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Bill Cohen, William Perry, and on and on. With all due respect, Senator Kyl, your knowledge of national security does not compare well to this roster. Virtually every former top security official, with the exception of Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, back this treaty. That alone should tell you something, everything, about what Kyl is really up to. But as my mother always urged, let’s look at the facts.
Begin with the treaty itself. It sets modest limits on the long-range nuclear arsenals of both sides. Neither side can have more than 1,550 warheads on no more than 800 launchers (land-based and sea-based intercontinental missiles and long-range bombers). Several U.S. presidents urged those ceilings because they fit existing U.S. force plans, though the limits actually exceed existing Russian forces. The other major provision permits both sides to resume on-site inspections, which neither has been allowed to do for years. This is quite important for Washington’s ability to verify what’s going on with Russia’s nuclear arsenal. That’s about it. No harm, no foul, so far.
So, what’s the big deal?
The consequences of rejecting this treaty would be serious. It would totally undermine Moscow’s faith in Washington’s ability to carry out negotiated agreements.
First, Sen. Kyl and others contend that the treaty somehow diminishes America’s will to ensure that the existing U.S. nuclear stockpile is secure and workable—i.e., that the warheads will explode when and how they are supposed to. Most nuclear experts don’t believe this is a serious problem to begin with. But to reassure Kyl and his cohort, Obama is committing more than $85 billion in coming years to check the reliability of the nukes and to modernize them. That sum includes a very recent addition of $4.1 billion, which the White House hoped would seal their bribe. That $85 billion is a very high figure historically for this task—but it apparently is still insufficient to reassure Sen. Kyl.