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John Feffer

John Feffer

Posted: January 4, 2011 07:17 PM

Negotiating With Evil

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Given the title of this essay, perhaps you expected a commentary on North Korea or another vilified U.S. adversary and violator of all human decency.

Actually, I was referring to Jon Kyl.

Those who dismiss the value of negotiating with North Korea insist that the country makes unreasonable demands, never has any intention of compromising, and violates any agreement that it ultimately signs. Funny, this sounds a lot like the hard-line Republicans in the last Congress.

Consider the strategy of Jon Kyl during the recent deliberations in the Senate over the strategic nuclear reductions treaty with the Russians (New START). Kyl is the Republican senator from Arizona who has made a name for himself as a hawk among hawks for his support of U.S. military intervention and astronomical Pentagon spending. He's never met an arms control treaty he liked. Indeed, he rose in the Republican pecking order in part because of his leadership during the Clinton years in defeating ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which put the United States in the august company of none other than... North Korea).

Then along came New START, the first baby step in reducing the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia. Wily Kyl sold his "support" for the treaty by insisting that an $85 billion modernization of the U.S. nuclear complex be included in the package. It might seem odd that the party that purports to prohibit pork endorsed the biggest BBQ blow-out of them all: a 10-year obligatory upgrade in the very systems that we're supposed to eliminate.

OK, fair enough. Politics is a game of give-and-take. Kyl, like the crafty North Korean negotiators, managed to get a good deal for himself.

But here's the ugly part. After practically gutting New START, Kyl worked overtime to defeat the treaty! After the mid-term elections, he began his obstructionist tactics. He began by offering his appreciation "for the recent effort by the administration to address some of the issues that we have raised" -- i.e., thanks for the handouts, suckers. But, he continued, the treaty shouldn't be addressed in the lame duck session because of the "combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization" -- i.e., he has other worthy efforts to block and it takes him longer than the average senator to understand the treaty's complexities.

Then, when it seemed as though the ship would leave the dock without him, Kyl did everything possible to blow up the vessel. First he tried the procedural route, tying the treaty's ratification to extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. His fellow Republicans were not as enthusiastic about the tactic, and the tax cuts alas went through anyway.

So, Kyl proceeded to trot out all the traditional arguments: New START would limit missile defense options, prevent additional nuclear modernization, and provide for insufficient verification. But he wasn't getting any support even from the nuclear experts on this one. "These arguments have been thoroughly debunked," nuclear physicist John Parsons told Vanity Fair. "Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (a Republican, by the way) has stated explicitly that the treaty does not curtail the ability of the U.S. to deploy missile defense systems in the future. The directors of the National Labs responsible for maintenance of the U.S. nuclear stockpile have all come out in favor of the treaty. Concerning verification, New START would re-start verifications that have been suspended since the original START treaty expired in December 2009. New START includes enhanced on-site inspections that would allow, for the first time, direct monitoring of Russian warheads."

Nor did it seem to matter to Kyl that the Pentagon, former Cold Warriors Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz, and even fellow Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain all came out in favor of the treaty.

When the Senate voted on December 22, the treaty passed easily 71 to 26. But Kyl remained a naysayer. "Whatever a president negotiates with the Russians or somebody else we dare not change because otherwise it will have to be renegotiated to some great detriment to humanity," he said. But wait a second -- the treaty was changed at his insistence and he still didn't vote for it -- to the detriment of humanity.

In any civilized country, this should have been grounds for putting Kyl in the stockade and pelting him with rotting vegetables. Instead, his colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), another New START naysayer, had the gall to hold a press conference to apologize to Kyl "for the way you've been treated by your colleagues."

The only apology that's due is from the Obama administration. Back in mid-November, the administration believed that it had enough votes for ratification without Kyl, and yet it still continued to negotiate with him over billions of dollars in modernization funds. Talk about appeasement.

Maybe the Obama administration was in a magnanimous mood. After all, it notched a couple victories in the lame duck session in addition to the New START ratification, such as repealing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy and extending unemployment benefits (albeit, along with the controversial tax cuts).

But the lame duck session also revealed disturbing signs of what's in store for the nation over the next two years. The DREAM Act, which would have given children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, went down to defeat because of a bipartisan bout of spinelessness. Similarly disturbing was the Republican filibuster of a bill to provide health benefits to the first responders to September 11. Only when the party was publicly shamed for opposing this legislative no-brainer did a modestly retweaked bill pass. Such shaming might be more difficult with the Republicans in control of the House.

The next two years will likely feature a great deal more shameless Republican obstruction, worrisome Democratic spinelessness, and wan bipartisanship. In the arms control realm, for instance, New START was supposed to be only the beginning, as the name suggests. But as Foreign Policy In Focus blogmeister Russ Wellen writes at Focal Points, this START might be a "stop" for arms control for the foreseeable future. Kyl got his nuclear modernization and his missile defense, and he has signaled that future arms control battles will be even tougher for the administration to win.

And the North Koreans? They're sounding a great deal more conciliatory than Kyl these days. In its New Year's Day message, the government in Pyongyang announced that it supported "an atmosphere of dialogue and cooperation" with South Korea "as soon as possible." It also called for a resumption of multilateral talks. Why should we sit down with them after they shelled Yeonpyeong Island back in November and killed four South Koreans? For one thing, the island is in disputed waters that North Korea claims. As FPIF columnist Christine Ahn points out in "Resolving the Face-Off in Korea", "international maritime convention considers 12 miles to be the boundary of any country's waters. Yeonpyeong Island... lies within 12 nautical miles of North Korea's coastline. North Korea's insistence that the South was conducting live artillery drills within its territorial boundaries is therefore not without basis."

Negotiating with the North Koreans is never easy, but it does yield concrete benefits: a frozen plutonium program, the return of missing soldiers' remains, a viable North-South industrial zone in Kaesong. There's also that minor issue of avoiding a cataclysmic war that would leave hundreds of thousands dead in its first days. If the Obama administration is willing to talk nukes with Jon Kyl, it really must follow up on North Korea's willingness to chat. Republicans like Kyl will no doubt squawk at what they perceive as unacceptable accommodation of intransigent double-dealers. Takes one to know one.

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