BOLTON & DESUTTER: The illusory verification gap

Break in treaty compliance data is Obama’s own doing

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President Obama and a fellow Democrat, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, are demanding that the Senate ratify the New START arms-control treaty with Russia during this year’s lame-duck congressional session. They argue that the absence of inspections since START I expired on Dec. 5, 2009, is creating holes in U.S. information on Russia that could give Moscow significant advantages over us in coming years. The real reason for the rush, however, is that Mr. Obama fears that New START is not holding up well in the ratification process. If the November elections follow current projections, they will doom the treaty once and for all.

But the “verification gap” is a red herring, a problem of Mr. Obama’s own making. During Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s January 2009 confirmation hearings, Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, stressed the importance of not having a hiatus in treaty-based verification measures. A five-year extension was possible under START I’s terms, pending entry into force of a new agreement. In early November 2009, Mr. Lugar proposed legislation enabling START inspections to continue while a new agreement was negotiated, saying: “It is incumbent upon the United States and Russia to maintain mutual confidence and preserve a proven verification regime between Dec. 5 and the entry into force of a new agreement.”

Initially, the Obama administration’s negotiators confidently predicted they would have START I’s successor negotiated in ample time to avoid a verification gap. When it became clear they would fail, their line changed. Within days of Mr. Lugar’s proposed legislation, The Washington Post reported that “senior U.S. officials” would create a “bridge mechanism” between the expiring and prospective treaties “to allow for the continuation of inspections, exchanges of data and notification about the testing and movement of weapons and other changes.” A week later, a White House spokesman said “we have a bridging agreement that we also are working with the Russians. I fully suspect we’ll be able to get that in place by Dec. 5.” On Dec. 5, however, START I expired without any provision for ongoing verification. New START was not submitted to the Senate until May 13.

Thus, it was the Obama administration that failed to meet its own deadline for achieving a new arms-control treaty with Russia, the Obama administration that decided not to extend START I and the Obama administration that did not obtain a verification bridging agreement. This record, to say the least, provides little ammunition for the administration’s newfound urgency for Senate action on New START, especially given the treaty’s substantive weakness.It is both unreasonable to chivvy the Senate to correct the administration’s errorsand unwise for the Senate to succumb with so many telling criticisms and unanswered questions about the treaty. Moreover, a lame-duck Senate session is hardly the place for momentous decisions about U.S. national security.

New START is anything but noncontroversial. Four Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted against reporting the treaty, and the three Republicans who supported it did so only after expressing serious concerns and caveats. One of the three, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, made clear that his vote in the committee was no guarantee of how he would vote on the Senate floor. All senators, but especially those with outstanding concerns about the treaty, should continue to insist on debating New START’s many unresolved issues and questions. From compromising our national missile defense capabilities to undercutting the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces to unnecessarily limiting our use of missile and bomber launch capabilities for conventional warheads, the treaty is increasingly understood as badly flawed.

There is an alternative to precipitate action on the treaty. The president can and should pursue Russian agreement to an interim executive agreement on verification, which would restate START’s telemetry and inspection provisions. While federal law rightly prohibits executive agreements - which do not require Senate action - that impose limitations on U.S. armed forces or armaments, no such limits would be involved in an interim executive agreement on verification alone. Of course, national technical means remain available to the United States under all circumstances.

Russia may well reject this proposal, because START I’s verification measures are far more robust than those in New START (itself a main weakness of the new treaty). But the Obama administration finds it far more congenial to pressure Republican senators than to pressure the Russians.

There is no arms-control crisis here, other than what the Obama administration itself has created and could fix easily as just suggested. If the Russians don’t like it, senators need to know no more in order to decide to reject New START itself. They should in any event refuse to act on New START until the next Senate is sworn in this January.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Paula A. DeSutter is former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Verification and Compliance in the George W. Bush administration.

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