Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, dropped a nuke on Tuesday when he said the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) should not be ratified during the lame-duck session of Congress. Democrats swiftly returned fire; it's curious what their rush is.
There are no pressing needs for immediate treaty ratification. There is no threat of nuclear confrontation with Russia, and the agreement simply continues to pare down nuclear arsenals that were cut more than 90 percent by President Obama's predecessors. Attempts to somehow link START verification to unrelated issues such as Iran's nuclear program and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in general are desperation ploys.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed in against "hitting the pause button" so soon after pressing the "reset" button with Russia. But the Russian State Duma, which also must ratify the treaty, is balking at pressing the START button. Last month, International Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev recommended slow-rolling ratification until an understanding can be reached regarding interpretations of the treaty's language that emerged from U.S. Senate committee votes. There's no point in rushing through ratification on the American side if the Russians fundamentally disagree with the Senate's understanding of what the treaty says.
A critical flaw in the new START is that it could significantly restrict U.S. missile-defense programs. The preamble language argues that America should reduce its defensive systems, and Russian officials warned that increases in U.S. capabilities would be grounds for Moscow pulling out of the treaty. The Bilateral Consultative Commission established by the agreement has such broadly defined powers that it could become a backdoor vehicle for imposing hard restrictions on American defensive systems.
In the current global environment, in which rogue states are acquiring long-range missile technology and nuclear capability, it would be strategically myopic for Washington to define its missile-defense priorities in a treaty that's a legacy of the Cold War. Typical Russian skittishness about American missile defenses cannot drive this debate. An agreement should be ratified only with the understanding that U.S. missile defenses are off the bargaining table. Failing that, the treaty should be scrapped.
In its desperation to end a difficult year with some kind of good news, the Obama administration is unwisely reframing the START debate in domestic political terms. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called verification a test of how well the political parties will be able to work together in the new Congress. If the White House is really interested in testing bipartisanship, the president should wait to make a deal with the incoming, more balanced Senate. This also would test Mr. Obama's leadership skills, which may be what the White House is afraid of. Jimmy Carter's failure to have SALT II ratified is an enduring symbol of his impotent foreign-policy leadership. A failed START II may play the same role for the O Force.
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