The GOP's Dangerous Nukes Game
The new nuclear arms treaty hangs in the balance as Senator Kyl moves to deny Obama a political victory—even if he damages U.S. national security.
Cast aside any doubts. There seems to be nothing Republicans won’t do to deny President Obama a political success at home—even if it means jeopardizing U.S. national security. Namely, future relations with Russia. To be specific, Republicans, led by Senator Jon Kyl, look as though they are trying to kill the new strategic-arms limitation treaty between Russia and the United States.
Their arguments— against the treaty, which sets lower limits on nuclear arms held by the two nuclear giants and reestablishes critical American inspection rights inside Russia—are totally without merit. That’s a charge I hardly ever level because it’s so serious. But in this case, it is more than justified. Signed about six months ago, the treaty does not do a great deal to curb nuclear arms on either side. But it is the essential element in efforts by Obama to “reset,” or firm up and increase the benefits of, relations with Russia. To put it simply, Russia can still do us significant harm or good on issues like Iran. And if the White House can’t deliver a treaty ratified by at least 67 Senate votes, Moscow will write off the United States. As Obama said on Thursday, passage of the treaty this year is a “ national-security imperative.”
That’s not idle presidential chatter. His words are backed by the most senior and experienced Americans, Republicans and Democrats, who have worked in the most important positions for presidents of the United States for decades. This star-studded list includes: James A. Baker, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Bill Cohen, William Perry, and on and on. With all due respect, Senator Kyl, your knowledge of national security does not compare well to this roster. Virtually every former top security official, with the exception of Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, back this treaty. That alone should tell you something, everything, about what Kyl is really up to. But as my mother always urged, let’s look at the facts.
Begin with the treaty itself. It sets modest limits on the long-range nuclear arsenals of both sides. Neither side can have more than 1,550 warheads on no more than 800 launchers (land-based and sea-based intercontinental missiles and long-range bombers). Several U.S. presidents urged those ceilings because they fit existing U.S. force plans, though the limits actually exceed existing Russian forces. The other major provision permits both sides to resume on-site inspections, which neither has been allowed to do for years. This is quite important for Washington’s ability to verify what’s going on with Russia’s nuclear arsenal. That’s about it. No harm, no foul, so far.
So, what’s the big deal?
The consequences of rejecting this treaty would be serious. It would totally undermine Moscow’s faith in Washington’s ability to carry out negotiated agreements.
First, Sen. Kyl and others contend that the treaty somehow diminishes America’s will to ensure that the existing U.S. nuclear stockpile is secure and workable—i.e., that the warheads will explode when and how they are supposed to. Most nuclear experts don’t believe this is a serious problem to begin with. But to reassure Kyl and his cohort, Obama is committing more than $85 billion in coming years to check the reliability of the nukes and to modernize them. That sum includes a very recent addition of $4.1 billion, which the White House hoped would seal their bribe. That $85 billion is a very high figure historically for this task—but it apparently is still insufficient to reassure Sen. Kyl.
The other Republican worry is that the treaty will prevent the development of missile defenses. They cite one sentence in the preamble to the treaty that they insist will cook the missile-defense goose:
“Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties…”
Even to the most dedicated ambulance-chasing lawyer, all this sentence means is that the parties should consider the relationship between offense and defense as they might make future reductions in nuclear arms. But folks, unless you know absolutely nothing about international law, you will know that preambular language has NO force of law. It’s just words.
Now, if the Republican reasons for opposing this new treaty are so silly, what are they really thinking? The only answer can be that they do not want this president of the United States to be seen as accomplishing anything. They plain don’t want him to succeed, for that will only strengthen his image and his political hand. And that’s the last thing they want. They just want to damage him and continue to beat him up, whatever the consequences for American security.
And have no doubt: The consequences of rejecting this treaty would be serious. It would totally undermine Moscow’s faith in Washington’s ability to carry out negotiated agreements. It, thus, would undermine the administration’s ability to strengthen ties with Moscow, to find common ground to deal with the problems of the Middle East and South Asia—very serious problems indeed. It would also encourage others to doubt Washington’s ability to keep its word. It would undermine American efforts to convince signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty that the United States had a serious intent to reduce its nuclear weapons. And this, in turn, would only increase those countries’ incentives to go nuclear. To today’s Republican Party in Congress, this might seem like a bunch of diplomatic mumbo-jumbo. But to all those former secretaries of state and defense and national security advisers who fully endorse the treaty, and to Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is something called The National Interest. Senatorial Republicans would do well to remember that old and quaint phrase: The National Interest.
In the face of all this, Obama said that he was “confident” on Thursday that at least 67 senators would vote for the treaty before the arrival of the new Congress next year. He has even placed his most experienced hand at senatorial maneuvering, Vice President Joe Biden, in charge of his new ratification effort. But it’s hard for anyone to be truly confident of passage at this point, even with the likes of Joe Biden leading the charge. So it comes down to Sen. Kyl. Let us hope that in the end, he will remember The National Interest.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.