Partisan politics claimed a new victim yesterday when GOP lawmakers forced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to delay a critical national security vote until September. Every day the Senate fails to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is another day without U.S. inspections of Russia's nuclear arsenal.
The Guardian's Michael Tomasky calls Republican stalling on New START "the worst GOP obstruction yet." Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said this is the "most bitter" political battle he has ever seen over a nuclear treaty. Even neoconservative Bob Kagan calls New START "too modest to merit partisan bickering." Scowcroft said, "Some just don't want to give President Obama a victory."
The original START treaty negotiated by Ronald Reagan expired in December 2009--and so did the system of inspections that puts U.S. officials inside Russia's nuclear weapons bases, checking each weapon poised to destroy an American city. The New START treaty restores and improves these on-site inspections. It also would cut both countries' arsenals by about 30 percent from current permitted levels.
Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued for a committee vote this week, saying yesterday, "We ought to vote now and let the chips fall where they may. It's that important." He continued, "At some point we need to think about the United States of America and our security interests." Lugar, the GOP's premier arms control expert in the Senate, is the only Republican senator to publicly support New START.
It's Money That Matters
Although Lugar stands alone for now, it is appears that several key senators are leaning yes, including Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT), Sen. Robert Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Jonny Isakson (R-GA). But Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is enforcing party discipline, preventing his colleagues from publically endorsing the treaty until he sees if he can get more money for nuclear weapons. The Administration has already increased the Bush nuclear budget by 15 percent to a whopping $180 billion over the next ten years. Kyl wants more.
In a clear admission that there are no longer any significant substantive issues blocking treaty approval, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Reuters yesterday: "All they have to do is find enough money to satisfy Senator Kyl."
This shift from policy to money is due, in part, to the overwhelming support the treaty enjoys from a bipartisan chorus of current and former national security officials. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said, "I, the Vice Chairman, and the Joint Chiefs, as well as our combatant commanders around the world, stand solidly behind this new treaty." The commander of U.S. missile defense forces also solidly backs the treaty. Rejecting false claims that treaty restricts U.S. efforts to field anti-missile weapons, General Patrick O'Reilly told the Senate: "The New START treaty actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program." Nine of the ten former and current commanders of America's nuclear forces have now told the Senate that it is time to approve the new arms pact with Russia.
All the previous secretaries of defense, secretaries of state and national security advisors who have spoken on the treaty have supported it. There is not a single, senior military or national security official from any administration going back to Richard Nixon that opposes the treaty.
Recent bipartisan statements from 33 military and national security leaders issued by the new Consensus for American Security and 30 former officials assembled by the Partnership for Secure America have added to the Senate's public record.
Failure to Ratify Threatens US Global Interests
Our allies cannot believe that this simple, straightforward continuation of Ronald Reagan's START I treaty, is having trouble in the U.S. Senate. The Washington Post reported French Ambassador Pierre Vimont said recently that after diplomats cabled home that the treaty could run into problems, "People ask us, 'Have you been drinking?'"
Failure to ratify this treaty would raise serious doubts about the ability of any U.S. president to negotiate new agreements. As veteran national security expert Michael Krepon explains:
Foreign capitals would be justified in concluding that Washington has lost its bearings. America's standing in the world would take a dive. Friends and allies would count less on Washington. Troublemakers would have more room to maneuver. The currency of international power would continue to flow towards Beijing, and there would be no agreed rules for reductions and verification arrangements for the two largest nuclear arsenals.
As of August 4, it has been 242 days and counting since START I expired and we lost our on-site inspectors in Russia. This new treaty has got to be a top priority for the Administration. The case for this treaty is so strong that approval by the Senate is, as former Republican Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger said, "obligatory."
In September, the Senate must give its advice and consent to New START. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D.-MA) set a vote for September 15 in a letter to his colleagues yesterday. The six weeks will give every Senator a chance to get their legitimate questions answered. They should come back prepared to vote. The Administration and the Senate leadership must give this critical pact priority time on the floor for a vote before the October 8 recess.
Every day without New START in force is another day we don't know for sure what is going on with Russia's nuclear weapons. That is not good for America.