EDITORIAL: Obama’s false START

The nuclear arms control agreement signed with Russia yesterday in Prague is a pale cousin to the treaties concluded at the height of the Cold War, when the stakes were higher and the risks greater.

The new treaty is almost universally referred to as “START II,” which raises the question whether anyone in the Obama administration or the press knows about the START II treaty signed in January 1993, or the START III agreement negotiated but not signed under the Clinton administration, not to mention the 2002 SORT agreement. White House-fed claims that this represents the first progress in arms control in 20 years are ahistorical, to put it mildly.

The administration is also hyping the “historic” scope of the arms reductions, ignoring the more substantial efforts it inherited from the previous administration. Under President George W. Bush, the United States retired 4,000 nuclear warheads, while the new agreement commits the country to retiring only 550. Mr. Bush moved significantly closer to Mr. Obama’s fantasy-land vision of a nuclear-free world than Mr. Obama will.

The treaty itself seems unremarkable, but the difficulty lies mostly with the administration that will be enforcing it. Mr. Obama is uncomfortable with nuclear issues, and his disinclination to face the hardest issue of national power may be the true reason he wishes nuclear weapons would just go away.

The Obama administration erred badly in announcing its new nuclear posture only days before the treaty signing, since this will frame the treaty-ratification debate. Senators will have legitimate concerns over how the treaty will be implemented within the new nuclear framework, especially since the strategic shift came after the treaty had been negotiated. The administration will have a hard time justifying the disconnects between treaty and strategy.

The treaty’s warhead limit is a case in point. America will reduce its warhead stockpile, but the Obama administration has also unilaterally pledged not to modernize the U.S. nuclear force. This concession opens the possibility for Russia to achieve the kind of strategic technological surprise the Soviet Union did in the 1970s. The SALT I framework did not limit multiple warheads (MIRVs), in part because the United States felt it had an advantage in that technology. But the Soviet Union surprised America by swiftly developing superior MIRV capabilities in the 1970s, and within five years, the treaty had become a strategic liability enshrining Moscow’s nuclear superiority.

Under the new treaty, the United States and Russia agree to limits in numbers of warheads, but only the United States has promised to freeze its technology. This is an open invitation to Russia to modernize its way to nuclear dominance.

The Obama administration is taking pains to point out that arms-control treaties regularly sail through the Senate with 90-plus votes, conveniently overlooking the fate of the Carter-era SALT II agreement, which languished in the Senate. There is also a lively debate going on in Russia whether this treaty is in Moscow’s best interest, and the Duma may well hold up ratification pending resolution of the missile-defense issue, as it did with the original START II treaty. Ultimately, however, the politics of the treaty will be overshadowed by other issues, particularly the drive by emerging nuclear states such as North Korea and Iran to build atomic arsenals of their own.

The Obama administration’s thus-far lackluster handling of global nuclear challenges will do more to determine the strategic setting of the coming decades than any scrap of paper. In the end, the fault is not in our START, but in ourselves.

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