The New START treaty has faced more opposition than the Obama administration expected. If it fails to win Senate approval, the administration has no one to blame but itself.
The administration could have had an agreement that flew through the Senate, if only it had consulted with and listened to Republican senators before negotiating with the Russians. Instead, it negotiated a very poor deal with Moscow, lined up some retired Republican officials to support it and demanded that GOP senators hop on board. It's the same "my way or the highway" approach the White House used to ram through Obamacare.
But New START skeptics don't have to buy into the take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. It's still possible to get a better treaty. One way is to further amend it. Declarations attached during the ratification process won't do the trick. The Russians can ignore them. Amendments can deliver binding improvements to the treaty. Of course, the Russians would have to agree to those amendments when the instruments of ratification are exchanged - something that's not very likely.
But there's a better way to fix the treaty: Start over. A 10-year treaty governing the most dangerous weapons on Earth should be negotiated to the highest standards. This one was not. It has loopholes, vague language and inequities that negotiators more attentive to U.S. interests would never have countenanced.
An arms control treaty should never be sloughed off as merely tolerable or treated like some high school project graded on a curve. Nor should the issue of nuclear weapons be used merely as a diplomatic tool to improve relations with Russia. Rather, the treaty should jealously guard U.S. security and interests - something New START just doesn't do.
Negotiations could start over under two scenarios: 1) the Senate rejects or refuses to consider the treaty, or 2) Russia refuses to ratify our version of the treaty with either amendments or reservations, or even declarations.
Luckily, there's time to start over. The Moscow Treaty under which the numbers of deployed strategic weapons on both sides are going down won't expire until the end of 2012. The Russians may fume, but they'd come back to the negotiating table to see what they could get from us in a new round of talks. Driving a harder bargain with them will ultimately earn their respect. After all, that's how Ronald Reagan negotiated with the Soviets, and it worked out well indeed.
So what should a new approach look like? The first thing is to fill the verification gap left by the lapse of the old START treaty. The administration should negotiate a verification and transparency protocol to the Moscow Treaty that does a better job than New START would of verifying the numbers of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads, since they are a Russian advantage.
Second, we should negotiate a follow-on to the Moscow Treaty. In that, we must make absolutely certain that no mention is made of limiting missile defenses. The Russians are trying very hard to revive the Cold War bargain struck in the defunct 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. They want to insert treaty language that will give them a claim to veto our missile defense upgrades and prepare the ground for future negotiations on strategic defense systems.
It's not in our interest to even hint that the Russians have any say-so over how we defend Americans from nuclear attack. We could negotiate a side agreement on genuine missile defense cooperation with the Russians to meet any future threats from nuclear proliferation, but that agreement should be about encouraging, not limiting missile defense systems.
Third, while a new agreement could decrease the number of strategic weapons, we should not reduce our deployed strategic warheads below the Moscow Treaty level of 1,700 to 2,220 unless the Pentagon has conducted a thorough review of whether doing so will harm U.S. security in an increasingly proliferated world.
Fourth, the follow-on treaty should make clear that its purpose is to improve the strategic defense of both parties, not to pursue the unrealistic goal of getting to zero nukes.
Such an agreement would sail through the Senate. There would be no need for strong-arm political tactics, no need to try to buy votes with funding promises. You would have a truly bipartisan arms control treaty, much like START I and the Moscow Treaty. More important, you'd have an approach that does a far better job of safeguarding American security than New START ever would.
Critics have legitimate concerns that are frankly being ignored. Given the state of play, the best way to rectify this problem is to start over. That's the only way to achieve an arms control treaty that can pass the Senate.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.