Republican skepticism challenges US-Russia treaty on nuclear weapons

President Obama is facing Republican opposition and midterm elections in his push to have the US-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ratified before year's end.

Petr Josek/Reuters
Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev shake hands as they exchange the signed new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) at Prague Castle in Prague, April 8. Obama is facing Republican opposition in his push to have the treaty ratified.

The White House will be scrambling in the coming weeks to answer the objections and questions of key Republican senators to aspects of a new arms control treaty with Russia. President Obama would like to see the treaty ratified by the end of the year.

But with the November midterm elections fast approaching, and with some Republican voices calling for no significant legislation to be considered in a post-election lame-duck session, prospects for what is widely considered to be President Obama’s most significant foreign-policy achievement to date may be wilting with every passing hot Washington summer day.

Democrats, many nonproliferation advocates, and some of Washington’s NATO allies are pushing for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. They warn that allowing it to languish jeopardizes the vaunted “reset” of US-Russia relations. Beyond that, they see President Obama’s vision for arms reduction hanging in the balance.

But several influential Republican senators, including Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Thune of South Dakota, are pressing for reassurances on the treaty’s provisions. They are also using the debate over ratification to elicit administration commitments on related arms issues, such as the modernization of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex and missile defense.

Skeptical Republicans would also like some guarantees that subsequent arms negotiations with Russia will address tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia maintains a significant advantage.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on the treaty before the August recess. Passage there is not in doubt, however, especially since the ranking member, Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, has already announced his support.

But full Senate ratification requires a two-thirds vote, or 67 senators – which explains the White House clamber to address Republican concerns.

Some advocates of a go-slow approach to ratification say the administration is rushing things. Since Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev only signed the treaty in April, skeptics wonder if that the administration might have agreed to things with the Russians it is now trying to hide.

“Is there a smoking gun in the treaty negotiations record? Probably not,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. “But the resistance we’re getting from supporters to opening up [the record] and the holding back [of information] are feeding paranoia about this.”

Playing on President Reagan’s “trust but verify” approach to negotiations with the Russians, Mr. Sokolski says the Senate should “trust but clarify.” It should take the time to explore with the administration what the treaty implies not just for aspects of arms reduction, but for “follow-on” arms control agreements, he says.

And he notes that ratification of the first START treaty was not a “rush job” of “just a few weeks.”

Ratification supporters say any comparison to the first START is misleading, since the context of that treaty process was nothing less than the breakup of the former Soviet Union.

Heather Hurlburt, executive director the Washington-based National Security Network, writes on the Democracy Arsenal blog this week that advocates of more time for treaty debate are citing the 13 months between submission and ratification of Start I as a good guide for the new START.

“But something rather significant – the breakup of the Soviet Union – occurred after the treaty was signed and submitted, requiring negotiation of an addendum to the treaty,” she says. “I’m wracking my brain on what of similar significance has happened since new START’s April 8 signing and May 13 submission to the Senate.”

Supporters of START’s ratification – and the list includes virtually all the big names of mainstream Republican foreign policy thinking, from Kissinger and Schultz to Baker and Scowcroft – say the treaty should be ratified before the November elections. The new Senate, with what many assume will be fewer Democrats and more Republicans, could take months to take up the treaty and might come in with new questions, they say.

But Sokolski says that if the administration wants strong bipartisan support for what it believes is a treaty in the national interest, it should be able to makes its case to both parties. “If you tell a Republican, ‘We want your vote now because we know when you get more seats you’re going to oppose this,’ how does that work to build support?”


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