The New START pact should be passed, not politicized

Friday, November 19, 2010; 9:10 PM

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S claim that it is "a national security imperative" that the U.S. Senate ratify a nuclear arms treaty with Russia before the end of the year seems more than a little overstated. The pact, known as New START, would modestly reduce deployed U.S. and Russian strategic warheads and renew a system of mutual inspections that lapsed at the end of last year.

Those are positive steps, and the treaty ought to be approved. But no calamity will befall the United States if the Senate does not act this year. The Cold War threat of a nuclear exchange between Washington and Moscow is, for now, almost nonexistent. The administration and Congress could advance America's 21st-century interests more tangibly by completing and approving the free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama - to name just one issue that matters more than U.S.-Russian arms control.

In reality, Mr. Obama's urgency probably has less to do with national security than with the upcoming shift of Senate seats, which will increase the number of Republican votes needed for ratification. If so, he is not the only one engaging in political calculations. No less an authority than Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has accused fellow GOP senators of trying to delay a vote on START because they "anticipate that the lay of the land is going to be much more favorable in January."

Both sides would do well to stop maneuvering for political advantage and return to the negotiations that appeared close to winning the necessary support for the treaty before the midterm elections. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has been representing the Republican side, acknowledged months ago that the treaty is "relatively benign"; his concern has been obtaining a parallel commitment from the administration to modernize the remaining U.S. weapons stockpile and its related industrial infrastructure. The White House has gone a long way to meet his concerns, promising to spend $7 billion this year and larger amounts in subsequent years as part of a 10-year, $85 billion plan.

Rather than take yes for an answer, Mr. Kyl blindsided the administration this week with a statement claiming that not enough time remained this year to ratify the treaty given "the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization." That was hard to credit.

Vice President Biden's riposte that "failure to pass the New START treaty this year would endanger our national security" is hyperbole. But a delay would put the administration's "reset" of relations with Russia at risk - along with Moscow's cooperation on vital matters like Iran's nuclear program and maintaining secure military supply routes to Afghanistan. It might lessen the willingness of nonaligned nations to cooperate with sanctions against Iran and other would-be proliferators. And it could cause both friends and foes of the United States to question Mr. Obama's leadership. At a time when the country is engaged in two wars and the president has two years left in his term, that's not an outcome that Republicans should wish for.

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