By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 11:01 PM
An unusual split has opened between conservative Republicans and the American military leadership over the U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty, with current and former generals urging swift passage but politicians expressing far more skepticism.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) "essential to our future security." Retired generals have been so concerned about getting it ratified that some have traveled around the country promoting it.
Seven of eight former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces have urged the Senate to approve the treaty.
But five Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in a recent report that New START was "a bad deal." They added that U.S. military leaders had made assumptions about the pact - including that Russia will honor it - that are "optimistic in the extreme."
Meanwhile, the conservative Heritage Foundation's grass-roots lobbying arm is targeting Republican senators with mailings warning that the treaty "benefits Russia's interests, not ours."
Retired Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson, the former deputy commander of U.S. nuclear forces, said Friday that it was "quite puzzling to me why all of this support [for New START] . . . is ignored. I don't know what that says about the trust that people have and the confidence they have in our military."
The New START treaty would reduce the two nuclear giants' stockpiles of long-range, deployed weapons by as much as 30 percent, leaving each country with about 1,550 warheads. President Obama said Thursday that he had "no higher national security priority" during the lame-duck session than having it ratified.
Winning approval could be tougher next year, when Republicans will have five more votes in the Senate.
For current and former senior U.S. military officials, the treaty is valuable because it allows the continuation of a dialogue with a country that still has enough weapons to wipe America off the map.
"If you've had experience with this stuff, and a sense of where we've been, how far we've come . . . this is an absolute no-brainer," said retired Adm. William J. "Fox" Fallon, who was head of Central Command and Pacific Command.
Military leaders say the treaty will allow the two countries to resume inspections of each other's stockpiles, which make up 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Such visits lapsed when the first START treaty expired last year.
Without such inspections, U.S. military leaders would have less insight into Russia's arsenal and might have to work off worst-case scenarios, and could consider increasing their own stockpile, officials say.
Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, commander of the Air Force's nuclear forces, said meetings with his Russian counterparts over the years had been useful in dispelling their concerns about the U.S. program and sharing ideas on improving nuclear security.
"Arms control treaties are the centerpiece, the nexus around which all this takes place," he said at a recent breakfast of defense writers. The pacts "are critically important for understanding, transparency and openness between the two largest nuclear powers."
Some conservatives have argued that the treaty is flawed because it sticks to a traditional approach in which the United States and Russia maintain security by keeping enough weapons to annihilate each other.
"Many of these military people are wedded, by training and background, to Cold War-style applications of policy and strategy," said Baker Spring, a national security analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
He said the U.S. government should instead opt for building a far more ambitious missile shield.
John Bolton, a conservative at the American Enterprise Institute, said that rather than drawing down on its stockpile, the United States should expand it, especially because China is modernizing its own nuclear forces, and Iran and North Korea are developing nuclear programs. He said it was wrong to see the treaty simply through a military prism.
"The political judgments that are involved go to questions of the sufficiency of the nuclear umbrella, not strictly in a bean-counting sense, but in a political sense - when allies feel reassured enough they don't have to contemplate building their own nuclear capability," said Bolton, the former undersecretary of state for arms control under George W. Bush.
Republicans are particularly concerned about language in the preamble of the treaty that recognizes a "relationship" between nuclear weapons and missile defense. Although the preamble is nonbinding, some Russian officials have used it to argue at home that Washington has accepted limits on missile defense.
Mullen said in a speech last week that there is "nothing in the treaty that prohibits us from developing any kind of missile defense."
Jameson is part of a group of retired military officers who have been traveling the country and meeting with senators, civic groups and journalists to promote the treaty. The general, who retired in 1996, said it was the first time he had taken on such a mission.
"In the past, I was on active duty when those sorts of things were negotiated," he told reporters. "In the past, I think there was this sense this was a bipartisan effort, there was no concern about ratification."
Today, he added, "there is chagrin that not enough people . . . even remember the Cold War."