iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
William Hartung

William Hartung

Posted: December 28, 2010 02:07 PM

The Senate's 71-26 vote to ratify the New START agreement was a victory for the Obama administration, key members of Congress, the arms control and disarmament movement, and ultimately, all of us, as it makes the world a safer place.

But that was then and this is now. The battle to define the meaning of New START's ratification has already begun. For Robert Kagan, writing in the Washington Post, the treaty is "good news" and a pillar of a "sound American foreign and defense policy." But his idea of a sound policy includes escalation in Afghanistan, a tougher line on China, and an "adequate" (which for him means larger) defense budget. This is what he wants the coalition that came together to ratify New START to work towards next. More directly, he wants more money for missile defense -- he derides Republicans for using missile defense as a "talking point" and asks whether "the next, more Republican Congress will put its money where its mouth is" by pressing for more missile defense funding.

Charles Krauthammer is on the case as well. While acknowledging that New START -- along with his tax deal and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- marks a political victory for President Obama, he's still fixated on missile defense. He criticizes New START and the surrounding debate for its "gratuitous reestablishment of the link between offensive and defensive weaponry."

First, New START does not prevent any administration from developing any kind of missile defense system it chooses to pursue. As for the "link between offensive and defense weaponry," it is a reality that has nothing to do with New START. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has put it:

"Under the last administration, as well as this one, it has been United States policy not [emphasis added] 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."

Why is this the case? Because if the United States somehow were to develop a missile defense system that Russia perceived as a threat -- in that it would allow the United States to attack Russia with impunity -- Moscow would simply increase its offensive forces, sparking a costly new arms race in the process. In addition, Moscow would be more likely to launch quickly in a crisis, fearful that its nuclear forces would otherwise be wiped out by a combination of U.S. offenses and defenses. Or, as Gates puts it, it would be enormously destabilizing and unbelievably expensive.

So, unless Krauthammer and other missile defense advocates are envisioning a world-straddling missile defense system that can knock out Russia's nuclear weapons, there need be no connection between missile defense and further nuclear arms reductions. If they are seeking such a system, they should admit it. And they should give some sense of how they think it could work (is it even technologically feasible?), what it would cost, and how they think Moscow would react.

In a real, evidence-based approach, the Obama administration is developing a multi-phased missile defense system in Europe that is focused on blunting the threat of Iranian medium-range missiles. This system poses no threat to Russia, so, as noted above, should not stand in the way of further arms reductions. Of course, that won't keep Krauthammer and company from crying wolf, but we should ignore them, and explain to the public why they should ignore them as well.

While the missile defense debate will undoubtedly rear its ugly head again, the real question is whether the Obama administration will move quickly and vigorously towards further reducing the nuclear danger, either by pursuing a follow-on agreement with Russia or seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. If properly educated, voters would support such a move. And it makes sense to move now, when the opposition is weakened. Who, for example, is as afraid of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) now as they were when he seemed to hold the fate of the New START treaty in his hands? The treaty passed without him, and he has come down a peg or two politically as a result. He will be an impediment to future agreements, but not necessarily an immovable one. So, as much as Kyl would like New START to be "the last arms control agreement for a while," his ability to make that happen is much diminished.

It would make sense to go on the offensive now, and not let the anti-arms control invective that is sure to come from a number of Republican presidential candidates get any traction. Potential presidential contender Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has already tried to re-frame the issue by asserting that "I fear that the New START treaty will serve as another data point in a narrative of weakness, pursuing diplomacy for its own sake or indulging in a utopian dream of a world without nuclear weapons divorced from hard reality." Expect similar rhetoric from Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and other Republican presidential hopefuls. By reiterating the national security benefits of New START -- backed by the authority of six former Republican secretaries of state, seven former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces, and the other political and national security leaders who supported the treaty - the Obama administration and its allies can deflate the other side's anti-arms control rhetoric while pursuing further steps to reduce global nuclear arsenals. This is no time to sit still.