Senate must ratify new START agreement on nuclear arms

The most important reason why the Senate should ratify the US-Russian new START agreement is that without it, America has no way to physically monitor Russia's nuclear forces.

The most important thing Americans need to know about the debate over ratifying a “new START” treaty is this: Without it, the United States has no way to physically inspect Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Not any of it.

Imagine, no way to get close and personal with Russian missile silos. No way to get a more accurate count of deployed strategic nuclear weapons. No way to check the number of warheads on individual missiles.

Actually, it’s not a matter of imagination. This has been the sorry situation for almost a year, since the expiration of “old START” – the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – last December.

That’s a dangerous state of affairs between the world’s two leading nuclear powers. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates rightly make this very point in a Washington Post op-ed today.

The inspection blindness will continue unless the Senate ratifies the new START agreement signed by Presidents Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in April. Senators have the opportunity to approve the treaty in this “lame duck” session. They should seize it.

The White House promotes the treaty as a step toward nuclear nonproliferation. That’s true. New START limits each side to 1,550 strategic warheads, a cut of about 30 percent.

But that’s way less than the cumulative 80 percent reductions achieved over three previous treaties negotiated by Republican presidents.

This modest treaty, however, has caused an oversized political controversy. The key opponent in the Senate, Republican John Kyl of Arizona, wants more funds to modernize what’s left of the arsenal after treaty ratification. Reportedly, Mr. Obama is now offering an extra $4 billion on top of a previously promised increase of $10 billion.

A handful of Republican critics also say the treaty limits America’s ability to deploy a defensive missile shield. The Russians have long opposed US plans to install a missile shield in Europe that would guard against a potential attack from a nuclear-armed Iran.

But the treaty’s wording against missile defense is only in Russia’s portion of the preamble to the document, and is not binding. The Obama administration, meanwhile, is giving no signals that it intends to abandon a missile shield. Quite the opposite.

New START enjoys widespread, bipartisan support in the nation’s security community – past and present. All of today’s military leaders back it, as do seven former commanders of America’s nuclear forces. The Senate has held dozens of hearings on the treaty.

In September, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved new START. It had the backing of Republican Sen. Richard Lugar – a respected, experienced lawmaker. With this record of consideration and support, the Senate should move to ratify the treaty in the “lame duck” session which begins today.

As lawmakers consider new START, they should keep in mind contextual concerns.

Failure to ratify would set back the “reset” in US-Russian relations. It would jeopardize other weapons issues with Russia that need attention (short-range nuclear arms and conventional weapons). It would give Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin one more reason to vilify the West.

But the bottom line, and most important consideration, is that without it, the US can’t inspect Russia’s nukes. That’s reason enough to ratify.

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