Though rightly determined to pass the New START treaty in the current Congress, President Obama should welcome the GOP's obstructionism. While the President has signaled he will fight for the accord, his offensive cannot stop at advocating the treaty's merits. Instead, Democrats must highlight the Republicans' opposition for the reckless partisanship that it is.
More than New START is on the table. Taking on the GOP and forcing a vote will also give Obama the chance to consolidate recent Democratic gains on national security. At the same time he can show the American people -- 75% of whom support the treaty -- just how irresponsible GOP opposition to the President has become.
Unlike health care or cap-and-trade, which involved complicated economic and scientific issues the right could distort, the merits of New START are a slam dunk. The treaty would cut U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arms by one third and reestablish critical verification mechanisms that lapsed when the original START treaty expired in 2009. With its vast stores of questionably secured nuclear materials and weapons, Russia today is still "potentially the world's nuclear supermarket." Every less nuke they have is one less nuke that can fall into the hands of a rogue state or terrorist group. Under New START, both countries would still retain some 1,550 nukes -- more than enough to obliterate both each other and life on earth. And the U.S. would regain the ability to monitor Russia's thousands of warheads and millions of pounds of weapons grade materials.
Beyond the persistent risk of loose nukes, failing to ratify START will have serious ramifications for other U.S. priorities around the world. Russian support for sanctions against Iran and its refusal to sell Iran advanced air defense systems, for instance, were major achievements for the U.S. Signaling we could not deliver on an issue Russia takes so seriously would bode poorly for future cooperation on such matters.
Yet nuclear terrorism and reduced U.S. leverage on Iran are risks Republicans seem blithely willing to tolerate. After all, what does a distant terrorist threat or a nuclear-armed Ahmedinejad compare to the prospect of undermining the White House? Time and again, the GOP has shown its main concern is simply to deny President Obama any achievement whatsoever -- consequences be damned. This is evident in their choice of leadership on the issue. Rather than heed the wisdom of Senator Lugar, the GOP's real arms control expert and a strong supporter of the treaty, Republicans are taking their cues exclusively from their hyper-partisan Minority Whip, Senator Jon Kyl.
Even Kyl has called new START "relatively benign." He has instead held it hostage to increased financing for weapons modernization, which the President has already agreed to. His continued opposition can only be read together with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's top goal in life: to make Obama a "one term" president. In the face of strong support from Defense Secretary Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, Henry Kissinger, seven former generals of the U.S. Strategic Command -- oh, and virtually every other national security expert on record besides Sarah Palin -- one can see why the GOP leadership has barely bothered to make a case on its merits. They have a beef, certainly, but to paraphrase Reagan (who initiated the negotiations leading to the original START), where is it?
Sure, there are a few rearguard actions by Republican operatives hungry for relevance and seeking to ingratiate themselves with the likes of Palin and Paul. John Bolton and John Yoo, for instance, recently claimed that Senators who vote for the New Start treaty "imperil our safety" and ignore the will of the people as expressed in the mid-term elections. Like Mitt Romney's thoroughly discredited display of anti-START pandering some months ago, Yoo and Bolton's implausible arguments suggest more than good faith disagreement.
Such Republicans believe that placing "low limits" on our nuclear arsenal ignores America's "global responsibilities" and the importance of its "nuclear umbrella" over our allies. Like the 28 NATO allies who unanimously called for New START's earliest possible ratification? In any event, the U.S. relies primarily on its overwhelming conventional superiority to underwrite global stability. Many of our allies, moreover, already have their own nuclear arsenals. Their security does not depend on the 700 or so weapons the U.S. would eliminate under the accord
Not content with such non sequiturs, these critics bend over backwards to credit Russia with a major "political" victory. They claim that non-binding language in the treaty preamble recognizing the link between strategic arms reduction and anti-missile systems means there will be "no significant United States efforts on missile defense." Yet the head of the Missile Defense Agency himself has explained that the New START Treaty "does not constrain our plans to execute the U.S. Missile Defense program" and that in fact it "reduces constraints" in this area. If this language is a win for Russia, they certainly have little to show for it.
But of course Republicans today care less for accuracy or decency than for attacking President Obama at every turn. As with Senator McConnell's agenda, the GOP's true national security priority is undermining the Commander-in-Chief.
In response, President Obama should continue to explain to the public why the accord is a "national security imperative," try to pick off potential GOP supporters, and force a vote. Besides the 67 Senators needed for approval and an obstreperous opposition, everything is on the President's side on this one. It is a battle he should relish. Or as his predecessor might have said: bring 'em on.
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