Ready to START

An update of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- or "New START" to its friends -- looks likely to be ratified by the United States Senate this week. Unfortunately, even if it does pass, the drama thus far should make one very pessimistic about the larger outlook for American diplomacy and nonproliferation efforts.

Simply put, START was supposed to be the easy lift. The START vote is a huge deal on its own terms, but that's primarily because the implications of not ratifying the treaty are enormous. The treaty was negotiated because the original START, negotiated by President Ronald Regan and signed by President George H.W. Bush, was expiring. Without a new treaty in place, the United States has no mechanism for verifying the status of Russia's nuclear arsenal. Russia, conversely, can't do any monitoring of our own facilities. If the United States has a secret plan to conduct a massive strategic arms buildup and launch a sneak attack on Russia, this is excellent news. If not, then non-ratification is an unmitigated disaster. We'll be left in the position of crossing our fingers in the hope that nothing goes wrong in Russia, and praying that Russians interpret this as a sign of utter political dysfunction rather than the existence of a secret plan to launch a nuclear first strike.

As a step forward, however, the treaty is extremely modest. Small reductions in the United States and Russian nuclear arsenals make the world a somewhat safer place. But from an arms-control point of view, the gains here are small.

The upside of these modest gains is that the treaty doesn't step on the toes of powerful constituencies. A handful of cranks may simply oppose arms control in principle, but START is a small gesture that should be able to obtain support across a huge swathe of the political spectrum. Which is exactly why START has obtained support across a huge swathe of the political spectrum. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry is a major proponent of the deal, and his partner in Congress is Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar. New START has been endorsed by former president George H.W. Bush, every living Republican former Secretary of State, multiple Republican former defense secretaries, the leaders of the uniformed military, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, America's allies in Eastern Europe, and just about everyone else.

There's no reason to expect that to lead to unanimity among the Senate GOP caucus. Some people, after all, genuinely think that George W. Bush's national-security policy would have been better if he'd spent more time listening to Donald Rumsfeld and less listening to Colin Powell, Robert Gates, and Condoleezza Rice.

But that crank caucus shouldn't be nearly large enough to threaten to derail the treaty. And objections to the treaty on the merits account for only a minority of the opposition. That's why so much of the negotiation around ratification has been about matters of Senate process. Senator Lindsay Graham, for example, said on Dec. 19 that he could not vote for START because the atmosphere has been "poisoned" by Democrats holding votes on "don't ask, don't tell" and the DREAM Act. The Graham standard would, it seems, try to impose a kind of unanimity rule on the Senate in which each member should object to every piece of legislation as long as the Majority Leader insists on holding votes on any bills he opposes. The biggest giveaway of all is the whining from Mitch McConnell and others that the process has somehow been unduly rushed and that it's unfair to cram the vote in ahead of Christmas.

In reality, of course, the whole Christmas jam-up could easily have been avoided had not Republicans spent the entire 111th Senate using every trick in the book to slow things down.

This very fact of hyper-partisan stalling around START, however, is exactly what's so disturbing about the current situation. Arms-control proponents hoped START would be just one small step toward a more ambitious agenda that was supposed to include ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and other steps to revive the international consensus around nuclear disarmament. Unlike START, some of these would be genuinely controversial within the national-security community and provoke meaningful opposition from elements of the military and the defense contracting world. And after the START experience, the odds of getting any further look bleak. The Obama administration has had to pull out all the stops to have a chance of securing ratification of a treaty that mostly just prevents us from moving backward. Fundamentally, whether START passes or fails the real message this week has been that the dream of major new steps toward disarmament is dead.

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