Stopping START for Now

  School children today have drills called “lock downs” to prepare for the garden variety nut with a gun.  They now longer duck under desks and cover their eyes in response to a possible Russian nuclear attack.  Yet, there is still a dangerous number of nuclear warheads pointed at us.  Although the Berlin Wall may have fallen, this sad fact still exists.  Besides Russia, there are nuclear weapons in Europe, in India and Pakistan and most disturbingly, in North Korea.  Likewise, the United States maintains a large nuclear arsenal despite the Cold War ending years ago.

     The recently negotiated START treaty between the United States and Russia is currently the subject of intense debate in this lame duck Senate.  Fearing entanglement in foreign controversies, our Founding Fathers deliberately took treaty making quite seriously.  It is why they placed that power of ratification in the hands of the more deliberative chamber of Congress- the Senate.  It is why, like other important decisions such as impeachment, it requires a two-thirds majority for ratification.

    There is a prima facie argument for taking up this START treaty in the 111th Congress.  As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated, the treaty went through numerous hearings and probes and passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a bipartisan 14-4 vote.  The ranking Republican, Richard Lugar of Indiana, echoed her statements.  However, incoming Senator-elect Roy Blunt of Missouri argues that the issue should be taken up by the 112th Congress in 2011.  The Clinton argument is that any delay means more days without American inspectors in Russia.  The more likely worry is that in 2011, there will be six fewer Democratic Senators making ratification potentially more difficult.

     There is no doubt that from day 1 Barack Obama has made nuclear proliferation a major foreign policy issue.  In several areas- North Korea and Iran to name two- he has been a woeful failure.  The fear at the White House and among Democrats is that the new Senate will use START as a political tool to further blacken his eye.  But if the treaty is truly in the best interests of the national security of the United States, it should stand on its own merits- potential political demagoguery be damned.

     Secondly, as many sources will attest, despite aerial or satellite reconnaissance, outright espionage, or even verification protocols using on-the-ground inspectors, there are loopholes that both sides use to their advantage.  Also, past history illustrates the sometimes woeful job done by our espionage services in assessing Russian nuclear weapons capabilities.  So the “we don’t have any inspectors in Russia” argument is a bit shallow.

     Another argument for immediate ratification involves Republican concerns regarding the modernization of our nuclear arsenal.  John Kerry ironically makes the best case for delay by arguing for immediate action.  He says there are no substantive issues between the parties regarding START and then notes that modernization is “ten years out.”  Hence, trying to bolster his argument for immediate ratification, he inadvertently argues the non-urgency of the issue.  Once again, John Kerry votes for it before voting against it.

     Blunt’s request that the Senate vote on ratification in 2011 will not, therefore, put the nation at risk- the scenario being put forth by Kerry, Reid, Hillary Clinton, Obama and Biden.  Secretary of State is Clinton is quite correct when she says it is this Senate that reviewed the treaty.  And they did a fine job of it.  And?  Surely, any possible new member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could be provided with that testimony and make their own conclusions.  New members of the Senate can then ask their own questions and have their concerns answered during debate, or even in writing by the experts.  Surely, the testimony will not change merely because the members of the Senate changed.  If the treaty is truly in our national security interest, putting off a vote until 2011 should not hurt the eventual ratification.

    By all accounts and according to most analysis I have read, as arms control treaties go, this one is rather benign.  By calling for immediate ratification under that argument, they further bolster the opposite argument that taking up ratification can wait until 2011.  Harry Reid can make it his first vote of 2011 if he wants.  And Republicans should not use a treaty as a bargaining chip for concessions elsewhere.  Just as Democrats should not play politics with START, neither should Republicans. 

     In fact, the probable explanation for the Obama/Democratic urgency in ratification is politics.  Having been slammed elsewhere, they seek a victory somewhere.  Putting off the vote until early 2011 will not put the United States at risk of nuclear attack from Russia.  Delaying a vote until 2011 is an acceptable compromise- not a giving in to Republican demands.  Call it bipartisanship if you will.  While there is a certain grain of truth in Lugar’s assertion that this Senate did the hard work examining the treaty and they should therefore vote on it, the fact is that good law is good law and a good treaty in our best interests is a good treaty whether that vote occurs in late 2010, or whether it occurs in early 2011.