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New START treaty: Sen. Kerry as statesman

A week or two ago, Senate ratification of the New START arms control agreement with Russia seemed uncertain. The White House successfully put on a full-court press while in the Senate, John Kerry shepherded the treaty through.

By / December 22, 2010

Democratic Sen. John Kerry (left) and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (right) on Dec. 21, when it became clear that the Senate had the votes to ratify the START arms control agreement. "This would not have happened without bipartisanship," Senator Kerry told reporters that day.

Credit: mv2/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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In 2004, what Sen. John Kerry wanted most was to become president of the United States. In 2008, after the election of Barack Obama, he wanted to become secretary of state. In this December week of 2010, the senator from Massachusetts has proven his statesmanship and value to the country without ever having had a crack at those two other jobs.

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It took a full-court press from the White House to get the Senate to ratify the "new START" nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia today. But it also took much behind-the-scenes work from Democrat Kerry, who has exhibited the diplomacy, patience, and attention to detail of a skilled statesman.

As nuclear arms agreements go, this is a relatively minor one. It follows on previous arms-control treaties by reducing the strategic nuclear weapons of Russia and the US by about 30 percent. Its greatest value is that it restores monitoring of each country's nuclear arsenals, which lapsed with last year's expiration of the previous treaty. Delay or defeat would have jeopardized the warming in US-Russia relations and a host of related national security issues.

Ratification should have been fairly quick since its signing last April. The treaty accumulated a stack of bipartisan endorsements from America's security community. But as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry found himself shepherding this treaty through the valley of the shadow of death.

As Kerry said, he couldn't have done it without the bipartisan support of Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a respected, senior senator. Indeed, bipartisanship played a major and welcome role here, with Kerry talking often with the treaty's chief opponent, Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona. Though still opposed to the treaty, today Senator Kyl acknowledged satisfaction with the outcome of negotiations: more money for modernization of the remaining nuclear arsenal, for instance, and written White House commitment to move forward on missile defense.

Those were substantive complaints that Kerry strove to address, but he also skillfully deflected political incoming missiles. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, complained that debate was being rushed. Kerry pointed out that the treaty had been delayed at the request of Republicans and that more time was being devoted to this debate than earlier, more complicated treaties. His finger-tip knowledge of the details and history of arms control helped him push back Republican attempts to delay ratification and renegotiate with Russia.

Six years ago, when Kerry lost the presidency, his colleague from Massachusetts, the late Ted Kennedy, urged him to refocus his energy on the Senate. "Being president is not the only way to make a contribution," Mr. Kennedy told Kerry.

What seemed like an uncertain outcome just a week or so ago, has ended with a 71-26 ratification in which 13 Republicans broke from their leadership and backed the treaty. National interest won out over politics. That is indeed a contribution, especially in this political climate.

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