A Return to Arms Control

Monday, June 2, 2008

SHORTLY AFTER taking office in 2001, President Bush began leading the United States in a radical new direction on nuclear arms strategy. The president proposed to abandon formal arms control treaties while unilaterally reducing the U.S. arsenal, building a missile defense system and beginning the development of new nuclear weapons. Over time international and congressional pressure caused Mr. Bush to alter his project somewhat: In 2002 he agreed to a bare-bones treaty with Russia covering the reduction of the two countries' deployed warheads, and last year the administration began talks with Moscow about a successor to the Cold War-era START treaty. But the administration has mostly stuck to an ideology that regards arms control as an unnecessary hindrance to U.S. power.

Administration officials once liked to describe their policy as an overdue adjustment of Cold War-era doctrine. Yet over the past seven years it is Mr. Bush who has stubbornly stuck to a strategy that -- if it was ever workable -- should have died on Sept. 11, 2001. Even as the threat of nuclear proliferation has grown, along with the terrible risk that terrorists would obtain nuclear warheads, the administration has continued to downplay treaties and policies that could help limit the spread of weapons and control existing ones. Even as Russia has changed from a relatively friendly democracy into a belligerent police state, administration policy has supposed that there is no need for rigorous monitoring of Moscow's nuclear arsenal.

Fortunately, a speech by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last week has confirmed that these wrongheaded policies will not survive Mr. Bush's tenure. Declaring that "we cannot achieve our nonproliferation goals on our own," Mr. McCain pledged that as president he would "strengthen existing international treaties and institutions to combat proliferation, and develop new ones." He said he would seek a new agreement with Russia including the binding verification measures of START; cancel the current administration's work on a new tactical nuclear weapon; strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty at a review conference in 2010; and take "another look" at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States has failed to ratify.

In all these positions Mr. McCain is in accord with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), though the latter is unambiguous in his endorsement of the test ban treaty, which Mr. McCain opposed in 1999. Mr. Obama has also supported a call by four former secretaries of state and defense for the elimination of all nuclear weapons; Mr. McCain said that such a goal, while his "dream," was "distant and difficult." His speech nevertheless included most of the specific measures proposed by the group. Notably, Mr. McCain says he would try to reach agreement with Russia on ending the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe -- an important step because such warheads are more likely to be obtained by terrorists.

Democrats charge that Mr. McCain's tough approach to Russia, which he would exclude from the Group of Eight club of rich democracies, will make it harder to strike new arms deals. In fact his policy is no more likely to fail than those of previous U.S. presidents who signed treaties while vigorously contesting Moscow in other spheres. It would restore nuclear arms control as a central pillar of U.S. relations with Russia and "trust but verify" as its guiding principle -- and thereby reverse one of the Bush administration's most foolish innovations.

The Ideas Primary, a series of editorials on the issues of the presidential race, can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ideasprimary.

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