Heritage v. Hartung on New START

08/13/2010 01:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • William Hartung Director, Arms and Security Project, Center for International Policy

I have had the distinct honor and privilege of waging a debate on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with James Carafano and Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation. The pieces, which ran on the conservative web site the Daily Caller, can be seen here, here, here, here, here and here.

Mr. Carafano's most recent objection to my arguments in favor of New START addresses me by name: it is entitled "The Hartung Test." I guess it's good to know the people at Heritage are paying attention, even if their responses to my articles on the subject are almost completely off base. If twisted logic was an Olympic sport, James Carafano would be a gold medalist.

As with all debates of this sort, the first question to ask is "Why does it matter?" In addition to the marginal entertainment value it provides, this debate matters because New START matters, and the arguments Heritage is making against the treaty are a good representation of what the treaty's opponents have been saying. So, if you don't buy Heritage's arguments, you're likely to support New START. And if you want to persuade anyone to support New START, it's good to have refutations of Heritage's distorted arguments at hand.

And why does New START matter? Because it is a modest but essential first step towards bringing the nuclear threat under control. By reducing each side's deployed strategic warheads to 1,550, it reinforces a basic position of parity while reducing force levels by about one-third. It puts in place a sophisticated verification system that includes satellite monitoring, information exchanges, and 18 annual on-site inspections. It will set the stage for further talks with Russia on eliminating short-range, tactical nuclear weapons. And it will give the U.S. greater leverage in persuading other nations to reduce their own nuclear arsenals.

That brings us back to Heritage v. Hartung. In his most recent piece, James Carafano takes me to task for opposing the development of a massive missile defense system aimed at rendering Russia's nuclear deterrent useless. He then argues that my opposition to this particular approach to missile defense means that I should oppose the New START treaty. This is like comparing apples and oranges. The New START treaty puts no limits on missile defense development; it stands on its own and is worthwhile in its own right. Debates about what U.S. missile defense policy should be will be played out in other forums. Suggesting that the treaty would limit missile defense development is just Heritage's way of attempting to cloud the issue and persuade undecided Republican Senators to vote against it (as you may or may not remember from high school civics, it takes two-thirds of the Senate to ratify a treaty, which means that at least 8 Republicans will have to vote for it if New START is to be ratified).

But having the freedom to develop missile defenses doesn't mean that any and every approach is worth pursuing.

This is precisely why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said the following:
"Under the last administration, as well as under this one, it has been United States policy not to build a missile defense that would render useless Russia's nuclear capabilities. . . . That, in our view as well as theirs, would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive."

On the question of New START, it's worth remembering that generations of military leaders, from the current heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency to seven former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces all support the treaty, and all agree that it does not restrict missile defense development. As the commanders noted in a recent letter to Congress, "[T]he treaty provides no meaningful constraint on U.S. missile defense plans."

Given this reality, different analysts can still have different opinions on how the United States should choose to use its freedom to develop missile defenses.

Bearing that in mind, it should be noted that the focus of U.S. missile defense efforts for the past two decades has been to address potential threats from regional powers like North Korea or Iran, not from Russia. If Mr. Carafano wants to change that approach to move towards a system that threatens Russia, he should say so. But I don't recall hearing him making a big deal of it during the administration of President George W. Bush. Could it be that his views on this matter are politically driven, based on who happens to be in the White House?

That brings me to the second point Mr. Carafano makes in his recent piece, that there is no rush to ratify the New START agreement. In fact, prompt ratification of the treaty is essential. As Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) recently noted, if the treaty is not finished by this December it is "no longer an issue of parliamentary debate, it's an issue of national security." He made this point because without New START, there will be no verification system to help monitor what Russia is doing in the nuclear sphere. It doesn't make sense to deprive our military of that critical information, as noted by the seven former commanders of our nation's nuclear forces cited above.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no good reason to wait on reducing the world's nuclear arsenals, which now stand at over 20,000 weapons. And given that the U.S. and Russia control about 95% of those weapons, it's hard to envision any other country reducing or eliminating their weapons if Washington and Moscow don't take the first step.