The START debate

Monday, July 26, 2010; A12

THE NEW NUCLEAR weapons treaty with Russia under consideration by the Senate is a modest achievement for arms control. New START, as the latest Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is called, sets a limit of 1,550 deployed warheads, reflecting a 30 percent cut from present levels. Russia is likely to reduce its arsenal even more in coming years, with or without a treaty. Still, ratification of the accord will ensure that inspections of Russian weapons continue; the regime established by the previous START treaty lapsed last year. It will also provide the United States some credibility as it seeks to persuade Russia and other key nations around the world to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to Iran and other states.

So the treaty is hardly a breakthrough toward President Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world -- but neither is it the sellout to Moscow or compromise of U.S. national security described by some Republicans. Much of this criticism, including an op-ed published on the opposite page this month by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has been lacking in substance. The most common claim is that the treaty would somehow limit U.S. development of missile defense systems, in Europe or elsewhere. But attempts by Moscow to insert such controls into the treaty failed. The provisions Republicans point to -- a reference in the nonbinding preamble to a linkage between offensive and defensive weapons, and language allowing either side to withdraw from the treaty -- also appeared in the previous START treaty with Russia, negotiated by the first Bush administration.

It has been refreshing, and encouraging, to see one of the leading Republican spokesmen on START, Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), focus on more constructive issues. In an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal this month, the senator said that "most senators will likely view the treaty as relatively benign" if "the Obama administration was clearly articulating" that remaining U.S. nuclear weapons and facilities are "going to be strong and properly resourced."

This is a legitimate concern. The U.S. weapons stockpile is in need of renewal, as are the laboratories and industrial complex that sustain it. Despite its official embrace of the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, the Obama administration accepts this priority and, to its credit, has been working hard to persuade Mr. Kyl and other Republicans of its commitment to it. Among other things, officials have prepared a plan for $80 billion in spending on the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade and have pressed Democrats in the House and Senate to support a $7 billion installment in next year's budget.

Mr. Kyl is not satisfied. He says that he wants to see the 2011 money appropriated by Congress before the Senate votes on the treaty. Republicans are further asking to review the official negotiating record with Russia, a demand that the administration is resisting. All this could have the effect -- perhaps intended -- of thwarting Democratic hopes that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote on START by early next month, so that the full Senate can take it up before the November election.

What's needed is some trust on both sides that the other will deliver -- funding from the Democrats, treaty ratification votes from Republicans. That's not easy in the current climate. But given where the discussion stands, ratification of START is something that could, and should, get done this year.

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