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William Hartung

William Hartung

Posted: November 9, 2010 05:38 PM

Don't Stall on New START

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It's time for the U.S. Senate to ratify the new arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia (New START).

The treaty's benefits are clear and concrete (PDF). Each side would reduce its nuclear stockpile by about one-third. Each side would adhere to an effective, multi-faceted monitoring scheme -- including satellite reconnaissance, on-site inspections, and extensive information exchanges -- that would ensure compliance with the agreement. The treaty would also set the stage for enhanced U.S. and Russian cooperation on urgent issues such as curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions and securing nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. And it would signal to the rest of the world that the United States and Russia -- which together account for over 90% of the world's more than 20,000 nuclear weapons -- are serious about their commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty calls for existing nuclear weapons states to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals in exchange for other signatories agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons.

The fewer nuclear weapons there are, the safer we all will be. New START offers an important step in the right direction.

So why hasn't the Senate ratified the treaty yet? First, the administration needed to make the case for the treaty, with a particular focus on Republican skeptics whose votes were needed to reach the 67 vote total needed to ratify a treaty. But that case has been made. There have been 18 hearings, dozens of briefings, hundreds of questions answered at the request of individual Senators, not to mention hundreds and hundreds of pages of reports, analysis, and testimony. An impressive bipartisan group of experts, including national security advisors and secretaries of state and defense from the Reagan, Bush (father and son) and Clinton administrations, has endorsed the treaty. So have all of the nation's top military leaders, along with key retired leaders like seven former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces.

So what is the holdup? Laura Rozen of Politico got hold of a memo by a staffer from the Senate Republican Policy Committee that purports to supply the reasons why the Senate should delay any vote on the treaty. In fact, the memo acknowledges that two of the main objections raised by the treaty's critics have already been addressed.

The first issue is "nuclear modernization" -- the ability to build a new generation of nuclear delivery vehicles and to preserve the reliability of existing warheads in the context of an upgraded nuclear weapons complex. There are serious questions about whether spending in these areas is in fact needed at a time when U.S. and Rusian arsenals are being reduced. But whatever one may think about building a shiny new weapons complex at a time when a growing number of world leaders are calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, the Republican memo notes that New START will "preserve the ability of the United States to modernize its nuclear forces." The real complaint is that the Obama administration is not doing so quickly enough, even though it is spending more on the nuclear weapons complex than even the George W. Bush administration did.
As Linton Brooks, the head of the nuclear weapons complex in the Bush administration, said in April, "I'd have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention" during the Bush years compared to the Obama years.

A second major issue raised by Republican skeptics has been whether New START constrains the United States from developing whatever kind of missile defense system it chooses to. It does not. The Republican memo notes that this "may be a true statement," but that the real question is how much money and effort the Obama administration is willing to devote to missile defense. As with nuclear modernization, this is an issue of administration policy that has no direct link to the New START treaty. The treaty allows any administration to pursue as extensive a missile defense system as it desires; it does not, and should not, dictate what shape that system should take, or how much should be spent on it. That is an ongoing policy issue.

Holding New START hostage to the policy preferences of some -- not all -- Republican skeptics makes no sense. New START is valuable in its own right, and it will make us all safer by reducing the number of nuclear weapons in both Russia and the United States. Debates over what kind of missile defense system to build, or how much to spend on modernizing nuclear delivery vehicles and the nuclear warhead complex, should be pursued on their own merits, outside the context of the treaty.

The Senate should ratify New START before the end of the year, during its lame duck session. There is no good reason to wait, and there are a number of very good reasons to move forward now.