- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2010


As the Obama administration has suggested, one of the most urgent tasks facing Congress is Senate ratification of the New START treaty between the United States and Russia. The key player on the Republican side is Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who suggested last week that there may not be time to give the agreement the consideration it merits during the lame-duck session. But there is still a chance for the administration to bring Mr. Kyl around or persuade a sufficient number of his Republican colleagues to break ranks with him and vote for the treaty.

It’s worth reminding ourselves why it is so important for the treaty to move forward now. New START will make us safer by cutting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals by one-third, from about 2,200 each to 1,550 each. It also will make it clear to other nuclear-armed nations that Russia and the United States - which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s more than 20,000 nuclear warheads - are serious about reducing the nuclear danger. This will set the stage for greater global cooperation, both in reducing existing arsenals and in working together on other crucial issues, such as protecting nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

Equally important, the treaty will re-establish rigorous monitoring procedures that will enable each side to keep tabs on the other’s nuclear forces. There have been no verification measures in place since the last START agreement lapsed nearly a year ago.

A growing chorus of former government officials and military leaders, including seven former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces, have made a persuasive case that in the current chaotic international environment, large, unregulated arsenals of nuclear weapons are liable to do much more harm than good. They have been joined by former secretaries of state and national security advisers from every administration going back to Ronald Reagan’s.

What is holding up Senate ratification of New START? Critics of the accord have raised several concerns.

The first question is whether New START would limit U.S. missile-defense programs. The answer is no. The body of the agreement - the part that is legally binding - puts no meaningful limits on the ability of the United States to develop any missile-defense program it chooses to pursue. Nonetheless, critics have raised concerns about some language in the preamble that rightly notes that there is a relationship between offensive and defensive forces. This is a simple reality, not a question of policy. If one side develops elaborate missile defenses that stand a chance of negating the other side’s nuclear deterrent, the other side will build up its offensive forces, sparking a new arms race. But it is not likely to come to this, based on current U.S. plans. As Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has noted, “It has been United States policy not to build a missile defense that would render useless Russia’s nuclear capabilities. … That, in our view as well as theirs, would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive.”

A second concern raised by the arms-control skeptics has been whether the United States has done enough to make sure that its nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers) are reliable enough to work as expected. But the Obama administration has increased spending on the nuclear-weapons complex over the levels that obtained during the George W. Bush administration, and it has sketched out a 10-year, $85 billion plan for keeping U.S. warheads and weapons facilities up to date for decades to come. This includes a recent offer to add $4 billion to the $10 billion increase already pledged for modernizing the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade. Current levels of activity are more than sufficient to ensure the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.

The time to ratify New START is now. In doing so, the Senate will be following a long tradition of bipartisan support for agreements of this kind, including the original START accord, which passed the Senate by a margin of 93 to 6. And New START is in many ways a superior agreement to the Bush administration’s Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT), most notably because of its strict verification procedures. SORT passed the Senate by a 100-to-0 margin. New START deserves the kind of bipartisan support garnered by these prior agreements.

William D. Hartung is director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.

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