By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 8:45 PM
President Obama's trip to Europe this past weekend has revealed a growing alarm among U.S. allies over the possible failure of a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty, with many warning that it would hurt the West's efforts to deal with Iran and with Russian weapons near Eastern Europe.
Obama comes home from the NATO summit facing one of the most significant showdowns of his presidency: trying to win ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) before the Senate adjourns in December.
Jon Kyl (Ariz), the second-ranking Republican senator, said last week he did not think there was time to bring it up during the current lame-duck session.
But Obama has forced the issue, reflecting Democrats' belief that if the treaty is pushed into next year, it could become a political issue for an emboldened Republican Party. The pact currently needs nine Republican votes to pass the full Senate but will need 14 next year.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized Sunday that political leaders appealed for passage of the treaty during the NATO summit, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and leaders from Eastern and Central Europe.
"Now, why are they saying that? Not because they have a dog in the hunt between Republicans and Democrats in our country. It's because they know that this would be an important treaty for the continuing cooperation between Russia and the United States," she said on "Fox News Sunday."
Kyl, a frequent guest on Sunday talk shows, did not appear. He has said little publicly about the treaty in recent days, but he has continued to hold private talks with Democratic senators.
Not ratifying the treaty could be a deep blow to the U.S. "re-set" with Russia, according to U.S. and foreign officials. The warming relations with Russia have fed closer cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, with Moscow supporting tougher U.N. sanctions on the latter and canceling the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran.
There is another reason that Europeans are worried: Without New START, it will be difficult to carry through on Obama's plans to hold follow-up talks on reducing the thousands of smaller Russian nuclear weapons within range of Eastern and Central Europe. Like its predecessor, signed in 1991, New START deals only with long-range weapons aimed at the United States.
"We see this treaty as a prologue, as an entrance to start talks about sub-strategical weaponry, which is much more even dangerous" than the bigger weapons, said Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis of Lithuania at a news conference at which six foreign ministers appealed for approval of New START. "We who are living in Eastern Europe especially, know this."
The New START treaty would reduce by up to 30 percent the deployed, long-range warheads of both nuclear giants. It would also restart a system in which inspectors from each country monitor the other's stockpiles, to ensure there is no secret buildup.
For the first time in 15 years, the two nuclear giants are not directly checking on one other's arsenals because of the expiration of the first START treaty a year ago. That worries U.S. military officials; few foresee an immediate threat from Russia, but it remains the only country with sufficient nuclear firepower to destroy the United States.
"We haven't had what we had before, which is a level of transparency, a level of predictability, a level of certainty with the Russians," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.
The European calls for ratification come on top of an intense effort by the Obama administration to win the pact's approval. Past Republican secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III joined former Democratic Cabinet members at the White House last week in a show of support.
Kyl, his party's de facto negotiator, has indicated he could give Republicans the green light to support the pact if the Obama administration came up with enough money to modernize the country's aging nuclear weapons labs.
The administration first promised a $10 billion increase over the $70 billion budget for the nuclear complex over the next decade. It sweetened its offer on Nov. 12 with another $4 billion.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates bluntly warned on Sunday that the modernization program is "very much at risk" if the treaty is not approved.
But Kyl has begun to face pressure from the right, with the Heritage Foundation's grass-roots lobbying arm sending out direct-mail warnings in several states that New START "severely weakens our national security."
Republicans also say they are concerned about the treaty's language on missile defense. Its preamble mentions an "inter-relationship" between nuclear weapons and missile defense, which some Russian officials have indicated would limit U.S. development of its system.
The Obama administration has disputed that and has noted that the language is non-binding.
Some Republicans also question the significance of the treaty, saying it would do little to constrain a growing threat from Iran.
"I think it's a good thing to reduce those [nuclear] inventories. But anybody that alleges that a START treaty is going to affect the behavior of Iran or any other rogue nation in their desire to acquire nuclear weapons, that's just damn foolishness," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at a conference organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative think tank.
Some diplomats and former U.S. officials argue the opposite.
The treaty does "reduce the level of nuclear weapons. It gives us street cred in this area to then appeal to others, or lean on others. . . . If we can't ratify this, then we just undermine our credibility," said Richard Haass, who held senior positions under President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush and now heads the Council on Foreign Relations.
At the NATO summit, reporters asked the foreign ministers who held a news conference on START whether the Obama administration had put them up to it.
Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen replied that it was her idea.
"I'm also the chairman of the Conservative Party in Denmark, which is the sister party of the Republican Party," she said. "So nobody will ever accuse me of being soft on security."