Terms of Engagement

The Bomb Squad

Are Senate Republicans really crazy enough to blow up Barack Obama's nuclear nonproliferation agenda?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Thank God Barack Obama has finally thrown down the gauntlet on Senate ratification of New START, the president’s strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia. On Thursday Obama agreed to force a vote on the treaty over Republican objections during the current lame-duck session.

Of course, his administration has thrown down other gauntlets that it has subsequently picked up again: freezing settlements in Israel, rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the rich, including a “public option” in its health-care bill. It may flinch again if the votes aren’t there. But the most important Republican holdout on START, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, has done the administration a favor by negotiating over the terms of the treaty in such transparently bad faith that no illusions can possibly remain about the value of further debate. After demanding and receiving a series of extraordinary concessions to win his vote, Kyl abruptly announced Tuesday that owing to “complex and unresolved issues” regarding the treaty, he would not be prepared to vote on it this year.

And whatever doubts might remain among even the hyperbolically fair-minded have been dispelled by an almost unprecedented burst of temper from Kyl’s colleague, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who complained bitterly to reporters that his own caucus was trying to block a vote on the treaty before the Senate adjourned for the year. “No one,” Lugar said, “wants to be counted.”

Now, of course, it is the White House doing the counting. Obama needs 67 senators to vote for ratification, at least nine of whom must be Republicans. His aides have identified 12 to 15 GOP senators who might vote for the treaty — though a New York Times tally found zero of them, save Lugar, prepared to be counted. “What we are fighting against here,” a White House aide told me, “is the argument that Nov. 2 was a repudiation of the Obama agenda, and this is part of the Obama agenda and why should we vote for it?” In fact, he says, “this is a continuation of the Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and even George W. Bush agenda.” If the White House sticks to its guns, we’ll find out soon enough whether the merits of the case actually matter, or at least whether Republicans are willing to say no to the senior military officials who will be visiting their offices to implore them to cast a vote for U.S. national security.

The White House has already paid a ridiculous price for what was once deemed a modest advance in arms control. To appease Kyl and other Republicans, the administration agreed earlier this year to raise spending on the labs that design and refurbish nuclear weapons and materiel by 13 percent, at a time when most federal agencies were enduring tiny budget increases or none at all. And the administration agreed to exempt that sum from a congressional resolution that froze all other spending at current levels throughout 2010. Obama has also agreed to add yet another $4.1 billion to that outlay over the next five years — “a nuclear spending spree that would have been inconceivable during the Bush administration,” as Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists recently wrote.

The pity of all this is not only, as Kristensen notes, that such colossal spending undermines the administration’s argument to the rest of the world that it is reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, but that this extravagant goody was supposed to be dangled in exchange for something really difficult to get: GOP support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would prohibit all testing of nuclear weapons. Now that it has been spent on START, there’s nothing left in the bribery cupboard.

It’s been a long, painful journey. I began talking to White House and State and Defense Department officials about Obama’s nonproliferation agenda way back in the summer of 2009, when the world looked ripe for transformation. The plan then was to conclude talks with the Russians in the fall and win Senate approval in early 2010; use the goodwill thus engendered at the review conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May to push other countries to fortify the treaty’s provisions; and then, maybe, initiate hearings in the Senate on the test-ban treaty, which everyone understood would be a tough sell. Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian negotiators would have returned to the table to do the really serious work of pushing the number of deployed weapons — including the tactical weapons excluded from START — down toward 1,000 or so.

That plan, like so many of the splendid diplomatic plans — on global warming, on fostering “a new beginning” in the Middle East — with which Obama arrived in office in what now feels like a different century, has turned to dust. But while in those other cases the failure lay either with the administration’s own expectations or with the recalcitrance of other countries, the nonproliferation agenda has been disabled by domestic opposition. Yes, the Russians haggled endlessly, but they did finally agree to a treaty that offered meaningful mutual cuts and, most importantly, ensured that both sides would be able to verify that those cuts were in fact being made. Obama won important commitments on his core issue of stopping nuclear proliferation at the U.N. Security Council in September 2009 and again at the NPT review conference in May. The stumbling block on all these issues has been the Republican caucus of the U.S. Senate — and the opposition will only grow when the new Senate is seated. That body, both more Republican and more conservative, almost certainly will not approve the CTBT or deeper arms reductions with Russia.

Obama doesn’t need Senate approval to achieve all his nonproliferation goals. He will keep the pressure on Iran through a combination of diplomacy and sanctions. He can strengthen the provisions of the NPT with regard to weapons inspections and punishing states, like North Korea, that withdraw from the treaty. He can work on developing an international nuclear fuel bank so that states do not need to develop their own fuel cycle to produce enriched uranium for peaceful purposes. He can press his NATO allies to reduce the organization’s reliance on nuclear weapons, an issue that will come up at this weekend’s meeting in Lisbon as NATO begins to rewrite its strategic concept.

But the problem is that, as with health-care reform, practically everything depends on everything else. The basic bargain of the NPT is that nuclear-weapons states will move toward disarmament while other states will not acquire such weapons and will work to prevent proliferation. The United States has to do the one in order to get the other. As I mentioned in an earlier column, Senator Kyl has told me that he thinks it’s naive to imagine that other states will stick to such a bargain. Obama believes, and virtually every expert and diplomat who has worked on these issues agrees, that there’s no other way of persuading states to take proliferation issues seriously. Obama’s success at the United Nations and at the NPT conference had everything to do with his commitment to change the direction of U.S. nuclear policy. For that reason, the very fragile international consensus on Iran may not hold if the United States is seen as flouting the rules.

Looking further down the road, the only way to bring Britain, China, France, and perhaps even India, Israel, and Pakistan into what is now a two-country arms control regime is to reduce nuclear stockpiles deeply enough that other states feel safe in building down as well, and in relying instead on conventional capacities (and perhaps missile defense). The United States and Russia will have to agree to go below 1,000 warheads — still quite enough to obliterate the world many times over. But this can’t happen if Republicans keep behaving as if Russia is the Soviet Union circa 1953 — or worse still, as if denying Obama a victory is a fair price to pay for increasing the likelihood that terrorists get their hands on a nuclear weapon. If that thought doesn’t move America’s even-keeled president to give the other side hell, I don’t know what will.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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