THE BLOG
12/20/2010 02:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

On New START, Kyl's Last Stand

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is feeling grumpy these days. And the closer the New START agreement comes to being ratified by the Senate, the grumpier he is going to get.

How can Kyl object to New START? It is a modest treaty that will reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals by about one-third, while simultaneously restoring a system for monitoring each side's nuclear forces to replace the one that lapsed over a year ago. These are worthwhile achievements in their own right, and they more than justify voting in favor of the treaty. But beyond the strict provisions of the agreement itself, New START can open the door to greater cooperation between the United States and Russia on a whole range of nuclear issues, from reducing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to locking up "loose nukes" and nuclear bomb-making materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

So what exactly is Kyl's complaint? In his own words, he feels that "notwithstanding our effort to work constructively, we're getting stiffed now." And what exactly does he mean by "getting stiffed"? He means that the Obama administration is going to seek a vote on New START without letting him continue to be an obstacle to its ratification. God forbid we should seek the opinion of the entire U.S. Senate without bowing down to Jon Kyl.

It's not as if the administration hasn't given Sen. Kyl ample opportunities to support the treaty. He was kept closely informed at every stage of the negotiations, and every one of his questions has been answered -- many times over -- by Obama administration officials. And in response to his concerns about upgrading the nuclear weapons complex, the administration agreed to increase spending in this area, crafting a "nuclear modernizatioin" plan that would involve spending $85 billion on the complex over the next decade -- billions more than the plan put forward by the Bush administration. As Linton Brooks, who headed the nuclear weapons complex under the administration of George W. Bush, has put it, "I'd have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention."

It was only this week that Kyl -- joined by Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) -- actually came out against New START. And it was McConnell who trotted out the same tired arguments that treaty skeptics have been using since the agreement was signed last April: "I think the verification provisions are inadequate and I do worry about the missile defense implications of it."

On verification, New START will entail a rigorous, multi-layered approach that will include satellite monitoring, extensive information exchange, and 18 annual on site inspections, some of them even more intrusive than those that were allowed under the prior START agreement. Not much to worry about here.

But in addition to the fact that New START's verification procedures are more than adequate, neither Kyl nor McConnell can explain why we would be safer with no arms reduction agreement and no verification scheme of any kind than we would be with New START and with a verification regime in place.
As Gen. Kevin Chilton, the commander of U.S. strategic forces, has noted, an environment in which Russia is not constrained in developing its nuclear forces and we have only limited techniques for keeping tabs on what they are doing would be "the worst of both worlds." That is precisely the situation we will be in if New START is not ratified.

As for the relationship between New START and missile defense, there is no meaningful relationship between the two. As President Obama put it in a letter to Sen. McConnell over the week-end, "The New START Treaty places no limitations on the development or deployment of our missile defense programs." He further noted that "as long as I am President, and as long as the Congress provides the necessary funding, the United States will continue to develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect the United States, our deployed forces, and our allies and partners." In this regard, Obama made reference to the administration's approach to missile defense in Europe, which will deploy interceptors capable of blunting the most immediate potential threat (medium-range Iranian missiles) while leaving the door open to adding more extensive capabilities as needed. This is a far more practical approach than the one that was being pursued by the Bush administration.

Other complaints? Critics like Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) want New START to address the problem of short-term, tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. But this would simply entangle New START with an issue that should be dealt with on its own terms. And since our European allies -- the ones most threatened by tactical nukes -- overwhelmingly support New START, there is strong evidence to suggest that the issue can wait until after New START is ratified. In fact, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry (D-MA) has noted, the only practical way to deal with tactical nuclear weapons is to talk with Russia about them after New START is in place. No New START, no talk on tactical nuclear weapons. It's that simple. So if Mr. Risch and his colleagues truly care about tactical nuclear weapons, they should be supporting New START.

So, it comes down to whether there is time to consider and ratify New START in the current lame duck session. There most assuredly is enough time. The treaty has already undergone 18 hearings, and the White House has answered over 1,000 questions about it. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has indicated that he will keep the Senate in session for as long as it takes to get this done. Republican senators, especially those who have expressed support for the treaty, or have said they are leaning towards supporting it, need to continue to hear from their constituents so that they are "bucked up" against any last minute pressure from Kyl or McConnell.

Making Jon Kyl grumpy is a small price to pay for a safer world.