U.S., Russia 'close' on new nuclear arms treaty

By Michael D. Shear
Friday, March 26, 2010

A day before the long-standing U.S. nuclear arms treaty with Russia was due to expire in December, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that the presidents of the two countries had spoken that morning.

"In the event that we don't finish or conclude negotiations, which seem unlikely to be concluded in the next 24 hours, there will be a joint statement from the two presidents," Gibbs announced.

"The statement is out. The Kremlin has already gone out with a statement," a reporter piped up.

A flustered Gibbs repeated that a statement would be issued if a deal couldn't be reached. But an hour later, the White House sent out a statement from both presidents, expressing their commitment to continue talks.

This week, the Russians appeared to catch the White House off guard again. An unnamed spokesman declared Wednesday that the United States and Russia had reached a deal on a new arms reduction treaty and that "all documents related to the new treaty have been agreed upon."

Gibbs would say only that the two sides are "close" to an agreement.

President Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev are slated to talk Friday to conclude the deal.

For a White House that prides itself on communication discipline and strategic precision, both jump-the-gun moments by the Russians had to be frustrating.

"They like to control the message," said one lobbyist who is in close contact with senior White House officials on the subject of arms control. "That's good for them because it means they control the message. But they can only walk and chew gum so much."

White House officials were preparing for a Friday announcement, said the lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agreement had not been formally acknowledged.

"These guys have to get their talking points, their background papers; they have to line up their experts," the lobbyist said. "It's a situation where some Russian diplomat spoke a day earlier than he was supposed to."

Coordination on communications strategy appears not to be high on the priority list for the Russians. But both governments have found it difficult to corral others on behalf of a particular rollout plan.

Hints of an agreement had leaked earlier Wednesday, when the Czech foreign ministry confirmed that it had been asked -- and had agreed -- to host a signing ceremony in Prague in early April.

Once the agreement is officially announced and the treaty is signed, the political focus in the United States will shift to the Senate. The likelihood of the treaty's ratification there could depend on the political environment in Washington.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a key Republican voice on foreign policy, said this week there would be no GOP cooperation on anything in Congress because the Obama White House had "poisoned the well" with its health-care effort.

McCain later backed off that statement, telling the Hill newspaper, "If it's in the national interest and there's something that requires us to work together -- a national emergency, something that we think will help the country -- sure."

Whether McCain and his fellow Republican senators, including Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), agree to work with the administration toward ratification could help decide if the treaty becomes a reality.

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