After months of negotiations with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to get his support for the New START agreement, the Obama administration has decided to push for a vote with or without his prior support. Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center has described the move as "the biggest gamble he's [Obama] taken so far, certainly on foreign policy."
It's worth the gamble. To oppose the treaty, Republican senators would have to place themselves in direct opposition to current and former U.S. military leaders including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, and seven former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces, among others.
Treaty opponents would also have to explain the contradictions in their own positions on the treaty.
For example, opponents like Sen. Kyl have raised questions about whether the provisions for verifying compliance with New START are adequate. They are more than adequate, involving satellite monitoring, extensive information exchanges and 18 on site inspections per year (Greg Thielman of the Arms Control Association has done an excellent analysis of the agreement's verification provisions). In addition -- and here's where the contradiction comes in -- the alternative to ratifying New START is to allow a situation to exist in which there are no on site inspections of Russian nuclear forces, and no real verification scheme. So, it's not New START versus an allegedly better verification scheme, it's New START versus no verification scheme. And indeed, this is how things have been for nearly a year, when the prior START accord expired. This means that neither the U.S. nor Russia has a close watch on the other's nuclear forces. If this situation were allowed to continue, it could reach the point at which each side started to question what the other was up to, leading to a new arms race. As Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, put it, "If we don't get the treaty, [the Russians] are not constrained in their development of force structure and... we have no insight into what they're doing. So it's the worst of both possible worlds."
And in case there were any doubt that Kyl and his allies are playing politics with treaty ratification, one need look no further than the 100-0 Senate vote in favor of President George W. Bush's Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which had no verification procedures. Republican president, no worries on verification; Democratic president, an uproar over a treaty with elaborate and effective verification procedures.
Another questionable element of Kyl's case for delaying New START is to suggest that we need to pour tens of billions of dollars into modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex to make sure that the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains reliable at the lower numbers called for by the agreement. In any case, the Obama administration has met him more than half way on the modernization issue by pledging to spend $84 billion on the warhead complex over a decade's time.
There are a few problems with the "modernization" argument. First, New START will leave each side with 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads (down from 2,200 currently). That's still enough to destroy either country (or any other targeted country) many times over. So the notion that we need modernization in part because New START will bring the U.S. arsenal to such "low" levels doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
Then there is the argument that the nuclear weapons complex needs to be modernized anyway, regardless of how many nuclear warheads the United States has. This is an extremely dubious proposition. A September 2009 report by the JASON group -- an independent technical panel regularly relied upon by the Pentagon -- found that current U.S. warheads could be kept reliable for decades with no changes in design. The ability to design new warheads has been one argument made in favor of undertaking a major upgrade of the nuclear weapons complex. The JASON group report makes it clear that it is an unnecessary concern. Nor is it necessary, as we move towards a world with fewer and fewer nuclear weapons, to build three new weapons factories, as would be done under current modernization plans. Not only aren't they needed, but they will be immensely expensive, running to $6 billion or more for a new uranium processing plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a new plutonium production facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and a new plant for producing non-nuclear parts of nuclear weapons, in Kansas City, Missouri. And a new report on how the administration will spend the $84 billion pledged for the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade suggests that the costs of the nuclear weapons plants will only go higher (and higher) from here forward (for an analysis of the administration's report, see this analysis posted at the Union of Concerned Scientists blog, "All Things Nuclear")
If Kyl really believes that the nuclear weapons complex needs a fresh infusion of cash, he should jump at the deal being offered by the Obama administration, which is considerably higher than anything ever contemplated by the Bush administration. It all comes back to whether he has serious security concerns about the treaty, or whether he and his cohorts are just trying to hand a defeat to Obama, and national security be damned.
There are other issues that have been raised by Kyl and company, such as whether the New START agreement will constrain the ability of the United States to build an extensive missile defense program. The treaty does not put any meaningful limits on missile defense development (to see a detailed explanation of why this is the case, see this analysis by the Arms Control Association). Common sense may dictate that the United States not spend tens of billions of dollars deploying technology that has not been proven to be effective in actually intercepting ballistic missiles. But the New START treaty is silent on this subject. If a gung ho missile defense advocate is president, he or she will be free to go to town in building missile defenses. If another president wants to take a more evidence-based approach and limit spending to research and development of the most promising missile defense technologies and deploy only those that have been proven to work, that option could also be pursued with New START in place. To suggest otherwise is basically to hold a necessary treaty hostage to considerations that have nothing to do with the treaty itself. Debates over what kind of missile defenses to pursue have no relevance to New START, and shouldn't be used to delay it.
In short, there are no good reasons to hold off voting on New START now, and many reasons to move as quickly as possible. The positive case includes sending a signal to other nuclear weapons states and nuclear wannabes that the United States and Russia -- the countries that control over 90% of the world's 20,000-plus nuclear weapons -- are serious about reducing their arsenals. This will make it easier to press other countries to reduce theirs. Ratifying New START will also mean improving U.S.-Russian relations in ways that will foster greater cooperation on issues like stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program and securing "loose nukes" and bomb-making materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. It can also set the stage for other key negotiations, including talks aimed at eliminating short-range, tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.
So, with Jon Kyl or without him, it's time to ratify New START. Ideally, a public debate on the issues raised here will bring Kyl around to supporting (or at least acquiescing in) the ratification of the treaty. If not, his Republican colleagues should make up their own minds, not wait for some sort of magic signal from Kyl. If the treaty is considered strictly on the merits, putting politics aside, it can and will be ratified.