The Cable

Arms control leaders convene major strategy session

With Barack Obama’s pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons faltering out of the starting gate, leaders of the arms-control community convened a major meeting Tuesday to gear up for their biggest fights in years. The next few months will be critical, insiders say, with a number of key international treaties up for renewal ...

With Barack Obama’s pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons faltering out of the starting gate, leaders of the arms-control community convened a major meeting Tuesday to gear up for their biggest fights in years. The next few months will be critical, insiders say, with a number of key international treaties up for renewal and battle lines being drawn in Washington and abroad.

About 50 senior think tank and advocacy executives packed the K Street conference room of the Ploughshares Fund to strategize and rally the troops for the upcoming policy war. "This is going to be the fight of our lives," Ploughshares President Joe Cirincione told The Cable shortly after the meeting concluded.

A huge part of the effort will be to hold the administration to the ambitious arms-control agenda President Obama laid out in his Prague speech last April.

"The debate on Washington on these issues has been dominated by the conservatives because the administration has yet to take the field," Cirincione said. "That’s about to change … finally!"

The next six months will see either the significant advancement or the defeat of a host of arms-control priorities. The agenda includes ratification of the still-pending START follow-on agreement with Russia, the February release of the president’s budget, the March release of the Nuclear Posture Review, a major summit on nuclear terrorism in Washington in April, and the Nonproliferation Treaty conference in May. A push for U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is also coming.

The Obama administration has been occupied with other crises and not eager to take on nuclear issues despite a heartfelt belief in their merit, Cirincione said. "They want to play it safe." The administration’s window for action is open but small. By the end of summer, the congressional elections will crowd out Washington’s bandwidth.

"If it doesn’t get done by July, it doesn’t get done," he said.

So the meeting, which included representatives from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Arms Control Association, the Council for a Livable World, the Federation of American Scientists, and others, was about marshalling those organizations’ combined resources and preparing a full-on campaign to press their shared goals now.

The loosely organized group’s strategy is fourfold: Push out facts and talking points supporting nuclear-weapons reductions into the press, increase the profile of the military, business, and religious leaders who back lower numbers of nuclear weapons, push sympathetic senators to be more active, and rally potential allies to the cause.

"There’s really no secret to how you go about doing this, Cirincione said. "The trick is actually doing it." Crucial Senate allies include John Kerry, D-MA, Robert Casey, D-PA, Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, Jack Reed, D-RI, and Byron Dorgan, D-ND, while conservatives such as Jon Kyl, R-AZ, and James Inhofe, R-OK, are set to press the administration for maximum concessions before letting any arms control action go through the Senate.

The advocates worry that such conservatives have controlled the debate over arms control, and that they need to shift to more of a hard-nosed Washington approach in response. Sources noted that Ploughshares has hired the Glover Park Group public relations firm to aid its messaging.

There’s also a growing realization that continued delays in the negotiations over the START follow-on agreement with Russia mean that time is running out before the summer election season begins.

An agreement with the Russians could come this month, with debate in the Senate by the end of March. But, as The Cable has previously reported, another Senate debate over CTBT before July is seen as much more unlikely.

Regardless, the arms-control community is girding for the fight. "It was a call to action meeting and this high-level group is primed to put the expertise and resources of our organizations behind the effort," said the Arms Control Association’s Daryl Kimball.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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