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I Don't Think That Letter Means What You Think It Means

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Republicans Senators are upset that President Obama might eliminate nuclear weapons we no longer need for our security. And as we have seen in other areas, the president's political opponents are not going to let facts and history get in the way of a good argument.

In a major address in June, the president announced that he would be seeking to negotiate a new round of nuclear reductions with Russia. In doing so, he left open the option of reducing U.S. forces by something other than a legally binding agreement. One options suggested by some outside the government would be something like the 1991 reciprocal, political commitments by the U.S. and Russia to withdraw and eliminate most tactical nuclear weapons. The United States has maintained more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security for many years, but in his June address, the President announced that new nuclear guidance had been endorsed by the Joint Chiefs and U.S. Strategic Command enabling even deeper reductions, down to perhaps 1,000 strategic deployed weapons.

At the moment, however, Russia does not appear very interested in a new Treaty and has said as much. This stance reflects either standard Russia negotiating tactics or a sincere aversion to further reducing its nuclear forces.

As a result, the president has left the door open to getting rid of nuclear weapons even the military agrees we do not need even and doing so even if Russia does not negotiate a new Treaty. At this, Republicans are crying foul and trying to cite, of all people Vice President Joseph Biden, to back up their case. As the Chairman of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, then-Senator Biden wrote Secretary of State Collin Powell along with then Committee Ranking Member and famous arms control agreement hater Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The letter stated that "[w]ith the exception of the SALT I agreement, every significant arms control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted to the Senate pursuant to the Treaty Clause of the Constitution."

This language is now being used by a group of GOP Senators, including presidential hopeful and GOP Senate newcomer Marco Rubio to oppose any possible move by the president to reduce American nuclear forces outside the auspices of a legally binding treaty approved by the U.S. Senate. They wrote former Senator and SFRC Chairman Secretary of State John Kerry that "It is our view that any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. This view is consistent with past practice and has broad bipartisan support, as you know from your service in the Senate." And then the GOP letter goes on to cite the Biden/Helms letter to back up their case.

This is where the facts come in. A simple reading of the 2003 Biden/Helms letter makes clear that the authors were writing about preserving the Senate's role in approving Treaties and rejecting the possible use of Executive Agreements, not whether President Bush might pursue reductions independent of a formal agreement.

The letter, in fact, begins by saying that "your February 5 testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations indicates that the administration has decided to negotiate a legally binding agreement with the Russian Federation on further strategic arms reduction." The issue of whether cuts would be made in an agreement, therefore, was already settled. The issue at stake was whether the cuts might come through a Treaty, requiring a 2/3 Senate majority to approve or through an Executive Agreement -- a legal document that be subject to a majority vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Biden/Helms letter makes clear that the concern is about whether "international agreements" that contain significant obligations on American nuclear force would constitute a "Treaty" as they maintain it would, not whether the President might reduce weapons independent of Russia action or via some reciprocal bilateral political agreement.

The lack of any reference to the 1991 and 1992 decisions by the United States and Russia to make unilateral but parallel reductions to their nuclear forces in the letter is an omission that speaks loudly.

Senator Rubio can perhaps be excused for not knowing what the letter is about since he was not in office at the time, but other co-signers including Senators Hatch, Roberts, Inhofe and others should get no pass, especially when trying to re-write history. These are complex questions and serious matters, and relying on facts, not smoke screens, would reflect better on the Senate and its members.

There is room to debate the costs and benefits of taking independent action to reduce the cost of our nuclear forces and eliminating unnecessary and dangerous nuclear weapons from our Cold War Era arsenal. But given the decision by the president's opponents to make up their own facts because the real ones don't support their case does not bode well for their future success.