US-Russia nuclear arms treaty may fall victim to domestic politics

President Obama is facing a challenge to pass START after leading Republicans have called for a delay on the vote to ratify the treaty. The deal with Russia regarding nuclear weapons inspections is a key foreign policy initiative for Obama.

On Saturday, Barack Obama used his weekly video address to pressure moderate Republican Senators into voting for the new START treaty before the year’s end. Staring into the camera with tired eyes, he told viewers:

“There is enough gridlock, enough bickering. If there is one issue that should unite us – as Republicans and Democrats – it should be our national security.”

Unfortunately for the President, he does not get to decide how much gridlock is enough. The new START treaty, signed by Mr Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, was having a good year. The bilateral agreement had been passed by a bipartisan 14-4 on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has the backing of the entire uniformed military.

The treaty would limit the number of deployed strategic warheads of each state to 1,550 and would replace the lapsed verification regime of the old START 1 treaty, signed by Reagan and Gorbachev, which ended last December. A whole year has passed since Russian and US scientists inspected each country’s strategic sites and failure to ratify would be a major set-back in the ‘reset‘ of relations between the two superpowers.

Russia has gone a long way to meet US asks on nuclear defence recently: from announcing co-operation on European missile defence at last week’s Lisbon Summit to cancelling a sale of the S-300 air defence system to Iran. However, that attitude is not being reciprocated on the American side.

After 900 questions in 17 public and 3 classified hearings, Senate consensus on START has cracked. A number of pivotal Republicans are calling for any vote on the floor to be postponed or abandoned. Mr Obama’s dream of a ‘world without nuclear weapons’, announced in Prague last April, is facing a rude awakening.

Over the last fortnight, all eyes have been on Senator Jon Kyl. Kyl, the minority whip in the Senate and leading Republican voice on the new START, had previously stated his support was contingent on increased funding for ‘modernisation’ of US nuclear forces.

Whilst Mr Obama met these demands by announcing a multibillion dollar package of spending on the  nuclear laboratories (as well as $10.4 billion for missile defence next year), Kyl dampened the administrations hopes of ratification last Tuesday by calling for the vote to be held after the ‘lame duck’ session. The lame duck session is the period between now and January, before the handful of new Senators from this month’s mid-term elections assume office.

If the vote on New START was held in December, the Democrats would need the support of at least 8 Republicans for treaty to pass. If it was held after January, now highly likely, the charity of 14 Republicans will be needed.

Kyl’s announcement has sent the Obama administration, who fear new, less moderate Senators are planning to derail the treaty, into lobbying overdrive. Last week, Obama promised an additional $4.1 billion for the nuclear weapons complex and sent a delegation, included Gen. Kevin P Chilton (head of US nuclear forces), to win Kyl’s support.

Mr Obama also used Saturday’s video address to dismiss claims that more time was needed to scrutinise the document. He stated that, ‘Over the last several months, questions have been asked about the new START, and we have answered every single one… It has already been 11 months since we’ve had inspectors in Russia, and every day that goes by without ratification is a day that we lose confidence in our understanding of Russia’s nuclear weapons.’

Whatever Kyl decides, other Republicans appear intent on denying Obama any kind of foreign policy success. Mitt Romney, hotly tipped to be the next Republican Presidential candidate, outlined his objections to the new START back in July and has been repeating his claims very loudly of late.

Some of the worst figures of the Bush administration, John Bolton (Bush’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control) and John Yoo (famed for legal advice on ‘advanced interrogation techniques’), have waded in with Op-Eds accusing the new START of being a victory for Russia on missile defence. Whilst Bolton and Yoo’s objections are too spurious to be explored here, the pair reflect a constituency within the party who see any failure for Obama as their gain. Indeed, Liberty Central, a Tea-Party affiliated grassroots group have made derailing New START a central objective.

The organisation, founded by Virginia ‘Ginni’ Thomas (the wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas) have started a nation-wide letter writing campaign entitled, “TAKE ACTION: Tell Your Senators to Oppose START Treaty.” On the more moderate side, Senator Bob Corker, a formerly supportive Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for the vote to be postponed. He cites a lack of time to debate the issue properly.

However, as Karen Camper has pointed out, the new START has been debated to exhaustion in Senate committee meetings and the objections appear politically motivated. Furthermore, Romney, Bolton and Yoo’s claims about threats to missile defence are not only false but betray a misunderstanding of the purpose of the treaty.

For an analysis of the factual errors in their pieces, see Fred Kaplan’s articles on Romney here and Bolton/Yoo here. Most importantly, the new Republican posture could result in serious security implications for the USA: there would be far less intelligence on the structure of Russian forces and a breakdown of trust. As The New York Times has argued, Republican obstinacy on the new START shows the lie in their claim of being the party of defence.

To conclude, the new START is beginning to look like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: a good idea, signed but never ratified. Obama’s flagship foreign policy initiative, the result of a year’s frenzied nuclear diplomacy, is at the mercy of his domestic opponents.

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