The Cable

Nuclear treaty debate expands outside the Beltway

Conservative opposition to the new nuclear reductions treaty between the United States and Russia has entered a new phase, with detractors expanding their aim outside of Washington in the hope of building grassroots support for their drive to thwart Senate ratification and make the treaty the centerpiece of their criticism of President Obama‘s foreign-policy agenda. ...

Conservative opposition to the new nuclear reductions treaty between the United States and Russia has entered a new phase, with detractors expanding their aim outside of Washington in the hope of building grassroots support for their drive to thwart Senate ratification and make the treaty the centerpiece of their criticism of President Obama‘s foreign-policy agenda.

Mitt Romney, the once and future Republican presidential candidate, unofficially announced the GOP’s change in tone with a Washington Post op-ed entitled "Obama’s Worst Foreign Policy Mistake."

In the article, Romney repeats all the longstanding criticisms of the treaty put forth by some Republican senators: that it constrains U.S. missile defense expansion, allows for Russia to opt out at any time, ignores Russia’s advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, and generally gives more to the Russians than they are giving back.

Defense writers such as Fred Kaplan have pointed out factual errors in Romney’s piece, and even Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, felt the need Wednesday to respond directly with his own Post op-ed, where he took on Romney’s arguments point by point and also accused the former Massachusetts governor of demagogueing the issue to score political points with conservative voters.

"Even in these polarized times, anyone seeking the presidency should know that the security of the United States is too important to be treated as fodder for political posturing," Kerry wrote.

But the expansion of the New START debate into the national political arena is not an accident. The anti-ratification crowd is mobilizing supporters all over the country with the express aim of making START a pillar of conservative opposition to President Obama’s foreign policy.

One of the main activities signaling this shift is a nationwide lobbying effort recently begun by the group Heritage Action for America, a new organization closely tied to the Heritage Foundation, the well-known conservative think tank. Heritage Action for America was established as 501c4 organization, which means it can do direct lobbying on the Hill and broad grassroots lobbying around the country.

Killing START is one of the group’s two keystone efforts, along with a drive to push a repeal of the new health-care bill in the House. The organization is now circulating a petition to its 671,000 dues-paying members featuring a video of Romney criticizing the treaty.

"To date, discussion of New START has been an inside-the-beltway issue with little input from the American people," Heritage Action’s CEO Michael A. Needham told The Cable. "Given the potential impact of the treaty on American security, Heritage Action is committed to giving Americans a conservative voice in Washington. Our petition drive will empower Americans who oppose the treaty and ensure their senator will take note. It is the first step towards stopping New START."

And Heritage Action is not stopping there. The group has a detailed plan to target lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and persuading wavering senators to oppose the treaty. Votes up for grabs include moderate Republicans like Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, but also conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson, D-NE, and Evan Bayh, D-IN.

The group also intends to put people on the ground in key districts while pressing their supporters to make their opposition to START known to their senators.

The new movement is timed to have an impact just as the drive to ratify New START heats up in the Senate. But the full-throated opposition to START as espoused by Heritage Action and Romney goes beyond the current position of many Senate Republicans who now are at the center of the START ratification debate.

This June 30 letter to Kerry from all the committee Republicans except for ranking member Richard Lugar, R-IN, argues that the Senate needs more time and information to examine the treaty but doesn’t argue that the treaty is unacceptable on its face. Even the new agreement’s leading Senate critic, Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, hasn’t come out to say he opposes the treaty — at least not yet.

Kerry’s July 1 response letter points out that reams of documents on the new treaty have been given to Congress and more are on the way. Congress has already received reports on Russian compliance with the old START treaty up to when it expired last December and a highly classified National Intelligence Estimate on the new agreement, as required by law.

The compliance reports are important because the last report in 2005 revealed Russian cheating. There is also a "verifiability assessment" that State Department sources said will reach the Hill July 12. As for the NIE, sources familiar with the document say it hedges enough that either side could interpret it to fit their own frame. For example, the various levels of "confidence" the intelligence community gave to its assessments don’t really help either side because they are so noncommittal.

That leaves only one document for Kyl and other senators to really fight about: their longstanding request for the full negotiating record for the new START treaty, which they suspect would reveal secret deals the administration is accused of making with the Russians regarding missile defense — something the administration has flatly denied.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have resisted handing over such records, and past administrations have reluctantly agreed to hand them over while warning about the damaging effect such disclosures can have on the executive’s ability to conduct negotiations.

Regardless, some GOP offices are prepared to make a big issue out of it. "By continuing to insist, contrary to history and precedent, that it will not share the negotiating record of the treaty, at least as it pertains to tactical nuclear weapons, missile defense and prompt global strike, the administration is simply showing that it isn’t serious about getting the treaty ratified," said one senior GOP aide close to the issue.

One administration official said he believes the fight over the record is all about politics. Supporters of the treaty argue that Republicans want to deny Obama a foreign-policy success before the mid-term elections. 

"The Republican demand for the negotiating record is akin to throwing mud against the wall to see what sticks … Because the arguments against the treaty and the nomination are not working, they are just resorting to desperation tactics to create talking points," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World.

Will it work? It’s still too early to tell. Nobody seems to know how many votes can be relied upon for ratification, making the next three weeks leading up the August recess, when Kerry intends to move the treaty out of committee, crucial.

Pro-treaty forces already have their own grassroots effort underway, with participation by the Council for a Livable World, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Ploughshares Fund, the Arms Control Association, and Global Zero, a group that has its own movie and petition to support the drive to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.

"The START treaty now figures prominently into what Global Zero is doing," said Ploughshares President Joe Cirincione, who noted that Global Zero has already given out dozens of grants around the country. "This effort alone might dwarf what the Heritage Foundation is doing on a community and grassroots level."

He also pointed to bipartisan groups that are supporting New START, including the Partnership for a Secure America, which rounded up dozens of former officials from both parties to come out and support the agreement.

"There’s an ongoing and increasing drive both at the grassroots and elite levels, aimed both at Republicans and Democrats, whereas the Heritage Action effort is only aimed at Republicans, and far right Republicans at that," Cirincione said.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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