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New START: Too modest to merit partisan bickering

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Friday, July 30, 2010

It's hard to believe that ratification of the New START treaty is turning into a pitched battle between some Republicans and the White House. It's even harder to believe that advocates for and against the treaty are trying to turn it into a stand-in for some imagined ideological contest over arms control and nonproliferation. It's not. This treaty is simply too unexceptional to carry such heavy freight.

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The proposed cuts in nuclear arsenals are modest. The START I agreement cut deployed strategic nuclear weapons on both sides roughly 50 percent, from between 10,000 and 12,000 down to 6,000. The never-ratified (but generally abided-by) START II Treaty cut forces by another 50 percent, down to between 3,000 and 3,500. The 2002 Moscow Treaty made further deep cuts, bringing each side down to between 1,700 and 2,200. And New START? It would bring the number on both sides down to 1,550.

This is hardly the revolution that either side claims. Take the favorite argument of many New START proponents. They insist the treaty represents a critical commitment by the nuclear superpowers to abide by the grand bargain of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: The nuclear states move toward zero in exchange for the non-nuclear states forgoing the weapons altogether. Ratification is essential, they claim, to gaining greater worldwide support for nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

Really? If this causal logic existed, why wasn't this the happy result of the massive cuts in superpower arsenals from 1989 to 2002? Instead, throughout those years, Iran and North Korea, as well as Iraq, worked determinedly to build nuclear weapons, and neither India nor Pakistan felt constrained from testing their nuclear devices. It's hard to see why the smaller cuts proposed in New START should suddenly produce a global commitment to nonproliferation.

But it's equally hard for the treaty's critics to argue that these cuts represent a great leap toward zero and the end of the American nuclear deterrent. The three previous arms control treaties, all negotiated by Republican presidents, and two of which were ratified with full Republican Party support, cut deployed nuclear weapons from near 12,000 down to around 2,000 -- about 80 percent. If anyone deserves credit, or blame, for moving the United States in the direction of zero, the two Bushes deserve a lot more than President Obama.

The biggest issue consuming administration and Senate negotiators at the moment has nothing to do with the treaty per se. Sen. Jon Kyl and others are quite reasonably demanding that the administration put more money into modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, since old warheads will become unreliable without major investments in the scientists and infrastructure behind them. As far as anyone can tell, the administration is trying to meet this request. And if it isn't, it should be. But the issue has nothing to do with New START's intrinsic strengths or weaknesses.

Some critics express concern that the treaty will limit American missile defense capabilities. The administration insists it will not, and senior officials are on record to that effect. But the real problem is not the treaty. It is the administration's ambivalent attitude toward missile defense in general. Yet the critics don't seem to be pressing for any new spending on missile defense -- as Kyl is doing on the issue of force modernization. If critics are truly worried about missile defense, that is where they should be focusing their efforts.

Finally, there is the question of U.S.-Russian relations. Some who oppose the treaty see it as the marquee item in the administration's "reset" policy. They rightly worry that this policy has given Russia too much at the expense of Eastern and Central European allies as well as Georgia and Ukraine. But here again, none of the critics has suggested making any linkage between the treaty and Russian policy toward its neighbors.

As to the treaty's virtues, there is little doubt that its negotiations improved the mood of relations between Moscow and Washington. This has had some payoff, both in Moscow's behavior and in the administration's. One suspects the administration has moved in a tougher direction on other issues partly because it has the treaty in hand. Successful cooperation with Russia on one front has allowed it to press Russia harder on others. The administration already seems to be trying to reset the "reset," paying greater attention to worried Europeans and protesting Russia's continued occupation of Georgia. Would defeat of the treaty help Russia's neighbors? I doubt it. Those who want to fix problems with the reset should focus more intently on those problems. New START is not one of them.

Senators have an obligation to block a treaty that they believe may damage the national interest. And Democrats certainly have no right to lecture Republicans about supporting the president, since many of them just voted against his funding request for Afghanistan.

But on this issue, Republicans can and should take the high ground and set a better standard. The treaty has its problems -- in verification, where the Russians seem never to be entirely trustworthy, as well as in counting mechanisms -- and so did the treaties negotiated by the two Bush administrations. But New START is not so badly flawed as to warrant rejection.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.



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