The Party of No and the New START Treaty

start treaty

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) recently proclaimed that there is insufficient time during the Congressional lame-duck session to ratify the “New START Treaty.”  President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had signed it on April 8, 2010.  Since Sen. Kyl is regarded as the key Senate Republican negotiator with the Obama administration, which claimed there had been “29 meetings, phone calls, briefings or letters” involving him or his staff, the media predicts that the treaty is now dead for this year.  It will not obtain the necessary 67 votes needed in the Senate for ratification.  Furthermore, since the Democrats will have six fewer seats in the Senate next year, prospects for then ratifying it are no rosier.

The Kyl announcement and subsequent media speculation has reinforced the Democrat’s charge, made as early as the spring of 2009, that the Republicans had become “the Party of No.”  It has also recalled Stephen Colbert’s mock emphasis on fear at the recent Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear held not far from the Capitol.  For what else but fear (“You can’t trust the Russians”), or the desire for some type of domestic political gain, could motivate the majority of Senate Republicans to block passage of the treaty?

Although many liberals and progressives faulted past Republicans, including Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes, for sometimes playing upon fears of communism for their own political gain, at least they signed arms reduction treaties with the USSR/Russia.

In 1972 Nixon signed Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaties limiting intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), missile-launching submarines, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and antiballistic missile (ABM) sites.  In 1987 Reagan signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which mandated the destruction of all Soviet and U.S. land-based nuclear missiles in the 300- to 3400-mile range and contained strict verification procedures.

In 1990 George H. W. Bush and Russia’s President Gorbachev agreed to a treaty reducing stockpiles of chemical weapons and ending their production.  Later that year the two men, along with twenty other NATO and Warsaw Pact leaders, signed the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.  It committed the signatories to destroy tens of thousands of howitzers, tanks, and other conventional weapons.  In 1991 the same two superpower presidents signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) Treaty, promising an approximate 30 percent cut in long-range nuclear weapons over the next seven years.  Despite some delays in implementation due to the collapse of the USSR later that year, the treaty eventually became operational.  In early 1993, President Bush and Russian President Yeltsin signed the START-2 Treaty pledging both sides to further gradual reductions in their long-range nuclear arsenals and to eliminating completely nuclear multi-warhead land-based missiles.  But increasing suspicions on both sides delayed ratification for years, and the agreement was never put into effect.

In 2002, after President George W. Bush alarmed Russia by withdrawing from the ABM Treaty signed in 1972, he and Russia’s President Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which was ratified by both sides the following year.  It pledged both countries to “reduce and limit its strategic nuclear warheads to 1700-2200 by December 31, 2012.”

The New START Treaty that President Obama is attempting to persuade Senate Republicans to ratify follows up on the treaty his predecessor signed in 2002, which is due to expire at the end of 2012.  The new treaty is fairly modest in its limitations, calling for both sides to reduce their strategic nuclear weapons down to 1,550, and it would strengthen verification, which the SORT Treaty all but ignored.  Furthermore, to please the concerns of Sen. Kyl and others about modernizing our nuclear weapons, the Obama administration has already made various concessions including a decade-long commitment of an extra $84 billion for such modernization.

On the PBS Newshour, Republican Richard Burt, chief U.S. negotiator for the 1991 START Treaty, declared that it was bogus to suggest that the New Start Treaty “hasn’t been examined carefully. . . . There have been over 20 briefings of the Congress, of the Senate on the treaty.There have been over 900 questions answered.  In fact, this treaty has undergone as much examination as the treaty I helped negotiate in 1991.” A New York Times editorial of November 17 referred to “countless briefings and 21 Senate hearings on the treaty — sufficient for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the country’s top military leaders, six former secretaries of state (from both parties), five former secretaries of defense (from both parties) and seven former nuclear weapons commanders to endorse it.”  Among the past Republican secretaries of state were those that served Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes, i.e. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, and Colin Powell.

Foreign policy experts agree that the New START Treaty has major implications beyond its stipulations regarding a small-scale reduction of long-range missiles.  Most importantly, its signing has helped improve Russian cooperation on several other major issues, including dealing with Iran and North Korea and supplying NATO forces through Russian or former Soviet territories.  The negotiating and signing of the treaty in April also helped bring about commitments at the subsequent Washington Nuclear Summit, where many states agreed to strengthen their safeguarding of nuclear materials.  Richard Burt warned that if the Senate does not ratify the treaty “we miss the opportunity to improve relations with the Russians . . . . we lose all credibility on the problem of stopping nuclear proliferation.”  He added, “there are only two governments in the world that wouldn’t like to see this treaty ratified, the government in Tehran and the government in North Korea.”  With President Obama in Lisbon for a NATO summit only days after Sen. Kyl’s announcement, it was clear that this Republican challenge to the president could weaken his leadership in dealing not only with Russia, but also with other countries including our 27 NATO allies.

Despite media pessimism that the lame-duck Senate will not ratify the treaty, the Obama administration has pledged to push ahead for ratification.  And all hope is not yet lost that enough Republican senators would follow the lead, not of Kyl, but of Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, their chief expert on arms control.  He warned that a failure to ratify would place our country “in some national security peril.”

walter  mossWhen one considers Lugar’s strong support, plus that of former Republican secretaries of state like Kissinger, Shultz, Baker, and Powell, do most Republican senators really wish to delay and (considering the makeup of next year’s Senate) perhaps kill the New START Treaty?  Are they going to continue to be “the Party of No”?  Or are at least enough of them going to join with Democrats to demonstrate a different mindset, one that displays wisdom enough to follow the lead of more seasoned statesmen of their own party and acts in the national interest?

Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008).

Republished with permission from The History News Network.

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