McCain's middle way on nuclear weapons

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

jeff chiu/ap
Arms: John McCain called for new arms agreements.
jeff chiu/ap
Distancing: During a speech in Denver on May 27, Sen. John McCain said both Democrats and Republicans have failed to do enough to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

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.

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.

"There is no time to be lost. This is not something we can play around with for a year while the new administration gets itself in order," James Goodby, a former US arms negotiator who is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said at an April seminar in Washington.

On May 27, speaking at the University of Denver, Senator McCain said that he is prepared to enter into a new arms control agreement with Russia.

"As our two countries possess the overwhelming majority of the world's nuclear weapons, we have a special responsibility to reduce their number," he said.

McCain added the US should be able to agree with Russia on binding verification measures based on those currently under effect with START. He vowed if elected, he would take another look at ways to move along the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the US signed in 1996 but has not ratified.

He also said the US should move quickly to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and move toward the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

In many ways McCain's speech seemed an effort to distance himself from the policies of the current administration. The Bush White House has opposed further binding limits on warhead numbers, for instance, as well as negotiations on tactical warheads.

"It seems to me that McCain is trying to establish a new strategic framework with Moscow. That's an important step," says William Martel, an associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan sought similar overarching agreements, notes Mr. Martel.

Sen. Barack Obama, who is closing in on the Democratic nomination, previously has talked about taking similar moves if he is elected. As noted in a quick-response e-mail from his campaign, Senator Obama talked about "dramatically" reducing US and Russian nuclear stockpiles in October of last year. He's also proposed a ban on the production of fissile material for weapons, and talked about expanding current limits on US and Russian intermediate-range missiles.

But it is important to remember that the speeches are one thing, and action another, say arms control experts. That's particularly true in this arcane policy field.

After all, as a candidate in 2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush made a similar sweeping speech, says Mr. Boese of the Arms Control Association.

And McCain has said in the past that he is a strong supporter of the deployment of missile defenses – something Moscow has opposed. It's an issue that almost surely would become a central point in any new US-Russian arms-control talks.

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