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New START: Now Comes the Hard Part

06/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The "New START" nuclear arms control treaty signed on April 8 by Presidents Obama and Medvedev is now moving towards ratification by the Russian and United States governments. Now comes the hard part: selling it to the American people and the 67 Senators who must approve the treaty before President Obama can ratify it.

Obama is not going to enjoy a honeymoon period for the treaty. Fierce and relentless attacks on the treaty, even before its terms have been published, already dominate the media. Wild and unsupportable charges having nothing to do with the treaty's terms are spewing forth from predictable opponents: Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Michelle Bachmann were among the first out of the gate, but they will be followed by many others intent on trashing the treaty and President Obama, its co-author and principal defender.

We've been here before - many times. From the dawn of the nuclear age, arms control and disarmament ideas, agreements, and treaties have triggered intense hostility from a wide spectrum of opponents who cannot accept the idea that any constraints on United States weapons could possibly be in the national interest. This is particularly true where nuclear weapons are involved.

Since 1960, more than two dozen arms control treaties and agreements have been signed. They have dealt with the testing, development and deployment of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, with prohibitions or limitations of weapons of mass destruction within specified geographic regions, with limitations on a variety of conventional weapons, and with curbs on the proliferation of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear countries.

But while all have been signed by American Presidents, not all have gone into effect. The U. S. Constitution requires that any treaty must be approved by 2/3 of the Senate before it can be ratified by the President and thus become law. This means that at least 8 Republican senators and all 59 Democrats must back the New Start Treaty. Obama has a big selling job ahead of him.

Gross and persistent misunderstandings of the purpose of arms control, of its advantages for the United States, of the meaning of the terms of treaties and agreements, of the means and effectiveness of verification, of the motives of other parties, and of the nature and utility of nuclear weapons have traditionally dominated opposition to arms control agreements and provided fuel for its opponents. It's been easier to persuade the public and Congress to increase armaments than to limit or reduce them.

Arms control opponents, led by politicians and influential media voices, are apparently convinced it constitutes a form of national emasculation. In 1961 President Kennedy's effort to create a separate Arms Control and Disarmament Agency succeeded only after the scary word "Peace" was dropped from the proposed agency's title. A prominent Congressional opponent (California Republican Craig Hosmer) reluctantly concluded, after seeing the votes were there to support it, that if there was going to be such an agency, "at least all the nuts will be in the same place so we can keep an eye on them."

Opposition to arms control treaties and agreements has been dominated by many institutions and individuals (and yes, Virginia, there is a military-industrial complex, with manufacturers of weapons components in almost every congressional district). They reinforce an array of common public misperceptions, among them:

  • That arms control is a sign of weakness. But governments employ arms control measures as an important component of national security - as a way to improve predictability and reduce potential threats to ourselves, not to weaken ourselves. When Sarah Palin, lunging for a sound bite, claims, as she did the other day, that President Obama is like a schoolboy on a playground daring another kid to hit him, she shows that she hasn't the faintest understanding of the obvious: that the treaty will increase, not decrease, US security. (But then, she wasn't trying to make a plausible argument; she just wanted to take another cheap shot at the President to energize her fan base).
  • That treaties are based on trust. In fact, the opposite is true: it is because governments don't rely on trust that they write treaties in the first place, and with clear and effective verification provisions. If one party is thought to cheat, the others will know it in ample time to take appropriate measures. When "national technical means" of verification (such as satellite photography or electronic intelligence) are inadequate to provide sufficient confidence, provisions for challenge and onsite inspection are written into arms agreements, and consultative institutions are created to allow parties to evaluate and resolve ambiguities about compliance that might arise.
  • That more nuclear weapons mean greater security. President John F. Kennedy's National Security Adviser, hardly a dove, McGeorge Bundy, demolished that argument more than 40 years ago, when he wrote in the magazine "Foreign Affairs":

  • "There is an enormous gulf between what political leaders really think about nuclear weapons and what is assumed in complex calculations of relative 'advantage' in simulated strategic warfare. Think-tank analysts can set levels of 'acceptable' damage well up in the tens of millions of lives. They can assume that the loss of dozens of great cities is somehow a real choice for some men. In the real world of real political leaders--whether here or in the Soviet Union--a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one's own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable."

  • Finally, that nuclear weapons are usable, and that nuclear wars can be fought and won. President Obama doesn't believe it. President Reagan (yes, that Ronald Reagan, who preceded Obama by 30 years in calling for a world without nuclear weapons) didn't believe it. Past and present national security planners, both Democrats and Republicans, don't believe it. Four of them (former Secretaries of State and Defense Shultz, Kissinger, Perry and Nunn) have provided the intellectual rationale (and political cover) for President Obama's often stated objective to work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Let's look at the New Start treaty as a small but essential step in that direction. But without it, subsequent steps will be all the harder to achieve. We have a long way to go, but this is at least a beginning.