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McCain's middle way on nuclear weapons

He criticized both parties and wants new pacts with Russia and China.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2008

Arms: John McCain called for new arms agreements.

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John McCain's new arms control proposals may be reminiscent of policies pursued by President BushPresident George H. W. Bush, that is, the current chief executive's father.

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They might also owe something to Ronald Reagan, and even Richard Nixon. All were Republican presidents who struck pragmatic framework deals limiting nuclear weapons.

In vowing to work more closely with Russia on disarmament questions, presumptive nominee Senator McCain appears to be trying to distance himself on core security issues from the incumbent President Bush, even as he vows to continue the current effort in Iraq.

But talking arms control is easy. As generations of US diplomats have found, producing treaties is another matter entirely.

"I think in general terms there is a lot to applaud [in McCain's proposals], but it remains to be seen how you translate these words into concrete results," says Wade Boese, research director of the Arms Control Association.

Arms control no longer dominates security discussions the way it did in the years of the cold war. Back then, such terms as "throw weight" and "MIRV," (Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle) were staples of the evening news.

But that does not mean it has become an item of secondary foreign policy concern. For instance, the next president will face the fact that the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), negotiated and signed in 1991, is scheduled to expire on Dec. 5, 2009.

START's expiration would not mean the end of limits on US and Russian arsenals. Under another pact, the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT), signed by the current President Bush and then-Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin in 2002, the US and Russia are limited to 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed warheads each.

But SORT has flaws that have led critics to call it only a "sort-of" treaty. It has no verification procedures, for one thing. Arsenal reductions are not permanent; warheads need only be taken out of service to not count against its limits.

And in a curious twist, the pact expires on Jan. 1, 2013 – one day after the US and Russia are officially required to reach its warhead limits.

By contrast, START contains verification measures that allow both sides to check on each other and have confidence that reductions have actually occurred. At the least, these provisions need to be extended beyond START's 2009 expiration date, say arms control experts.