Senate Republicans Stall START Ratification

Guests

Ambassador Richard Burt, managing director, McLarty Associates
James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence

President Obama on Saturday pressed Senate Republicans to stop blocking his updated nuclear arms pact — the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. But Senate Republicans worry it could limit U.S. missile defenses and want more time to consider the consequences.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

At the NATO summit in Lisbon over the weekend, President Obama put the spotlight on START, the nuclear weapons reduction treaty. The president and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, signed the new START treaty months ago.

He wants the Senate to ratify it promptly, which means in this Congress, where he's got more votes. Last week, Republican Senate Whip Jon Kyl said he wants more time to debate and study, which means put it off until the next Congress, where he's got more votes.

But there's more to START than party politics. Strategic arms treaties with the old Soviet Union helped stabilize what used to be called the balance of terror, but tens of thousands of nuclear warheads still sit atop missiles in places like North Dakota and Novosibirsk and aboard ballistic missile submarines.

Later in the hour, the director of National Security and Joint Warfare at the U.S. Marine Corps War College on the Marines and don't ask, don't tell. But first: How important is the START treaty?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with Ambassador Richard Burt, chief negotiator for the START I treaty with the former Soviet Union back in 1991 under President George H.W. Bush. Ambassador Burt is with us here in Studio 3. Nice to have you with us today.

Ambassador RICHARD BURT (Managing Director, McLarty Associates): Thank you, it's good to be here.

CONAN: Also with us in the studio is James Woolsey, chairman of Woolsey Partners, former Director of Central Intelligence and author of an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, "Old Problems with New START." And Director Woolsey, nice to have you with us.

Mr. JAMES WOOLSEY (Former Director of Central Intelligence): Good to be with you.

CONAN: And Ambassador Burt, what's up with the treaty? Is this first of all, is this is a good thing? And why has it stalled in the Senate?

Mr. BURT: Well, I think on balance, it is a good thing. It's not a radical new departure in arms control. In fact, it's built very much along the lines of the treaty that I helped negotiate. There are some changes that take into account developments and the experience over the last 15 years or so in implementing the treaty.

But it will lead to a modest cut in both sides' deployed nuclear warheads, roughly about 25 percent. And it will lay the groundwork for follow-on negotiations that can address different problems, such as, say, tactical nuclear weapons that both sides deploy.

I think a more important question, to tell you the truth, and whether it's a good thing or not, is what happens if it isn't ratified. If, for one reason or another, the decision is not taken during the lame-duck session this year, and it is postponed into the new Congress and for one reason or another it isn't voted on in the new Congress, then I think very briefly there are several disturbing concerns.

One is I do think it makes a future arms control more problematic with the Russians and potentially with other nuclear powers. Two, I think it would badly upset this process of greater cooperation between the United States and Russia, which we've seen in recent months with the Russians supporting us on Iran at the U.N. Security Council with sanctions there, with the Russians not providing advanced air defense equipment to the Iranians, with the support they're giving us in Afghanistan. And very interestingly, this weekend, on their support for growing potential participation in a new missile defense system that NATO approved.

And then, finally, I think at the time when the United States is facing one big crisis, which is over our economy and whether we can reach consensus on fiscal policy, spending and taxes, for the United States to appear not to be able to exercise leadership on arms control and its emphasis on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, it really makes the United States look incompetent and incapable of exercising leadership.

CONAN: Director Woolsey, obviously you take a view that this is a flawed treaty.

Mr. WOOLSEY: I see it differently. I'm not sure that this treaty cannot be ratified. It may be early in another Congress. And there are circumstances in which I think that might work out.

The problem is that the Russians demanded, in the preamble, language that links offensive forces to defensive improvements. And they are saying that the treaty is only to be effective if there is no qualitative improvement in U.S. ballistic missile defenses.

The difficulty here is that the administration made a number of changes in our ballistic missile defense programs a year ago this fall that effectively weakened our ability to protect the United States. It enhanced our ability to protect Europe from, say, Iranian ballistic missiles.

But the situation today is one that the changes the administration has made in ballistic missile defense particularly, and the Russian insistence, (unintelligible) and others, that any change, any improvement in our ballistic missile defenses will violate the treaty and give them an excuse to leave. That creates a terrible situation for our being able to protect ourselves against Iran.

CONAN: As you say, though, it's in the preamble. It's not in the text of the treaty.

Mr. WOOLSEY: It doesn't matter. They are using their being very clear and forceful, saying that it is legally binding and that if we improve...

CONAN: A member of the Duma. That's not President Medvedev.

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well, there are more Russians than that are saying this.

CONAN: Ambassador Burt, is this a valid argument?

Mr. BURT: Well, I really don't think it is. First of all, the language in the preamble is very well-known to me because it's the same language that was in the preamble of the treaty that I negotiated in the early '90s.

Actually, the origins of that language are from a meeting that took place way back in the mid-1980s between Foreign Minister Gromyko and Secretary of State George Shultz. And you remember at that time, the Russians were very concerned about President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

So this is just a continuation of the Russian desire to force us to recognize that there, as the preamble states, a relationship between strategic offense and defense.

Now, I've paid several visits to Moscow over the last three months, and I've talked to people in the foreign ministry. I've talked to people on the Russian defense staff, as well as their academic community. They all will candidly recognize that they're not going to get anything more than that preamble language in this agreement. And they recognize they are not, during the course of this treaty, going to be able to in any way constrain our options in that area.

That's why they're emphasizing the notion of somehow cooperating with us like they did last weekend at NATO, at the NATO summit, rather than throw down the gauntlet. I doubt very, very seriously that if we engage in any upgrading, any augmentation of our existing ballistic missile defense capabilities, that the Russians will walk out of this treaty.

Now, does that mean they won't raise it in a follow-on negotiation? Of course they will. That will continue to be an issue of interest to them. But I think you can't really argue, I think, convincingly, that this agreement in any way, shape or form constrains our options.

CONAN: Well, we'll give Director Woolsey a chance to argue...

Mr. WOOLSEY: This kind of language had no particularly effect in the START treaty that Rick negotiated because we had the ABM treaty at the time, and the ABM treaty was what was controlling thing. And we had a dispute about broad versus narrow interpretation of it and so forth. That was where the effort was.

The problem is that the Iranians have now launched two satellites. The Leon Panetta said last summer that they could well have a ballistic missile with a nuclear weapon on it within two years. And DIA's estimates are that by 2015, they could have an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Because of the changes the administration made, we're weaker with respect to protecting the United States, even though they made some improvements in our ability to protect southern Europe. And these changes, that need to be reversed if we're going to do a decent job of protecting ourselves against Iran, are going to get jammed up with Russian objections to our doing things like boost phase intercept and the rest.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Our guests are Ambassador Richard Burt, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency James Woolsey. And Tim's(ph) on the line, calling from Durham in North Carolina.

TIM (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TIM: Well, my question is this: We have a recently negotiated START treaty that obviously is the subject of debate here. But we also have new information that we're planning on going ahead with a missile defense shield for the NATO countries, of which Russia is not a fan.

And my question is: What's going to keep Russia at the negotiating table in the future if their belief is that we can't ratify any sort of treaty in the setting of a bipartisan Congress?

CONAN: James Woolsey, that's a point that Ambassador Burt made earlier.

Mr. WOOLSEY: I just think it's flat wrong. I think that putting this off until January, when the new Senate would be able to look at it and ascertain what the administration is going to do with respect to developing a (unintelligible) boost phase intercept, with respect to being able to protect against an Iranian threat much better than they can now, I think if that gets clarified in an appropriate way, the Obama administration would not have substantial difficulty in getting this approved by the Senate.

The problem is they're stalling on that. That is what is causing a number of the Republicans to be very worried about what they're doing.

CONAN: This is not in the treaty. This would be language the Senate would extract from the administration.

Mr. WOOLSEY: And not just language and not just dollars but precise plans. That's what's going to take a few weeks to do, I think.

CONAN: Ambassador Burt?

Mr. BURT: Well, let me first of all just repeat I'll make three points. First, to repeat, there is nothing in this treaty that restricts American options in developing and deploying strategic defenses.

Secondly, the Russians appear, I believe, to be moving in our direction on this issue. The fact that Dmitry Medvedev attended the NATO Russia council meeting this weekend, the fact that the Russians are prepared to consider cooperating with the NATO plan on strategic defense is a very, very positive sign.

I think it would be a huge mistake for any member of the Senate to begin trying to negotiate let's call them loopholes on systems that haven't been studied, on capabilities whose requirements have not yet been defined, when there are no restrictions on us in the treaty. What's to stop the Russians from doing exactly the same thing? That's how arms control treaties die.

CONAN: We're talking about the new START treaty, which is at the moment stalled in the United States Senate. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION. When we come back, more of your calls, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. How important is the START treaty? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

A brief programming note: David Isay will join us on Thanksgiving Day ahead of StoryCorps' National Listening Day. We want to know how you've used stories to bridge a conflict or understand someone better, maybe at the Thanksgiving dinner table. You can send us an email now: talk@npr.org. Please put National Day of Listening in the subject line, if you would, and tune in on this hour Thanksgiving Day.

Right now, we're talking about the stalled START treaty. How important is it? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Ambassador Richard Burt, who helped negotiate the original START treaty in 1991, now managing director at McLarty Associates and chairman of Global Zero USA, a group that works to eliminate nuclear weapons. Also James Woolsey, who served as director of Central Intelligence and as an advisor on a number of international arms treaties, now a chairman of Woolsey Partners. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Gregory(ph), Gregory with us from Santa Rosa.

GREGORY (Caller): Yes, hi, thanks.

CONAN: Go ahead.

GREGORY: I think the START treaty has to be seen in the context of the international relations, including the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. If President Obama goes out and negotiates a treaty, and the Republicans nitpick it to death and don't let it get ratified, then countries like Iran and other countries have no reason to believe that Obama, the president, can deliver on anything he has to say.

So to me, as long as the Republicans are preventing the START treaty from ratification, there's no reason for Iran to take the United States seriously.

CONAN: On the arguments about the non-proliferation treaty.

GREGORY: Exactly.

CONAN: Director Woolsey?

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well, Iran is not known for its observance of international law. And it is entirely, I think, in the business of stalling while it works on its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

The defense intelligence agencies say they'll have an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015, and...

CONAN: As you said before, but they are also being held to the standard of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The United States is a signatory to that treaty, as well. This agreement works the United States toward its part of it.

Mr. WOOLSEY: That treaty has huge flaws, as North Korea has shown and as Iran is in the process of showing.

CONAN: The non-proliferation treaty.

Mr. WOOLSEY: The non-proliferation treaty. Once you have a light water reactor and can get into the fuel cycle, enriching uranium, you are very, very close to being able to have everything you need in order to have a nuclear weapon.

CONAN: That's - we learned about North Korea this past weekend.

Mr. WOOLSEY: North Korea, and that's what happened in India and Pakistan. There are just all sorts of ways in which one, by getting into the fuel cycle, can end up with enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

Nothing that we do with respect to START is going to keep Iran from working on its nuclear weapons program. We have to keep that from happening in other ways.

CONAN: Ambassador Burt?

Mr. BURT: Well, you know, I fundamentally disagree with that point of view. It's been a hallmark of this administration, and I can say this as a good Republican, but it's been a hallmark of this administration to try to raise the prominence of the problem of nuclear proliferation and the problem of loose nuclear materials. And I think that that part of that process is the START agreement itself.

I think that our credibility, and we mentioned the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, our credibility as a signatory to that treaty is based on our is based in part on our good-faith efforts to be seen with other nuclear powers to reduce the size of our arsenals.

I think we're just politically making it easier for the Iranians, the North Koreans and others if we can't negotiate arms control agreements. If they can't be ratified, we're simply highlighting what many people will say is the hypocrisy of American foreign policy: On the one hand pressing other countries not to acquire or grow their nuclear arsenals while at the same time we're somehow unwilling to do that.

We should bear in mind the United States and Russia presently possess over 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. We shouldn't give talking points to Mr. Ahmadinejad in Tehran to justify his nuclear program.

CONAN: Gregory, thanks very much.

GREGORY: Yeah, thank you, you got the point.

CONAN: Let's go next to this is David(ph), David with us from Port Richey in Florida.

DAVID (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

DAVID: Mr. Burnett(ph), Mr. Woolsey. The question I have is that arms treaties and our approach, current approach with Russia now seems to indicate a different view of how security is attained.

In the past, it was viewed as military superiority, in terms of numbers and capabilities. Now, it appears that we view security differently. Security is to be attained through negotiation and reduction.

However, our stance towards Iran seems to be different; that, it seems once again, that we our only source of security security can only be attained with Iran through continued superiority, technologically, rather than negotiation and reduction. How do you explain that discrepancy?

CONAN: I'm not quite sure I get the original point. The Soviet Union had better numbers throughout its history than the United States did. It was different quality, but in terms of numbers, the United States...

DAVID: But I mean, the approach to security was through superiority. That's how we viewed attaining security.

CONAN: Is that an accurate way to describe it, Director Woolsey?

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well, it's the way you have to do with respect to Iran. Ahmadinejad is a theocratic, totalitarian, genocidal maniac. It's difficult to have even-handed, legally-binding agreements with someone like him. Or it would have been the same - it was the same, with North Korea.

On the other hand, if one is dealing with a country that observes the rule of law and has a different approach toward something than you do, you can often work it out with respect to treaties. But with Ahmadinejad, I think it's a joke.

CONAN: David?

DAVID: I see. Well, I was so there's no the issue of negotiation and reduction (unintelligible) is off the table. It's to be continued, maintain that's how we're going to have security with respect to Iran, is to continue to maintain a military capability.

CONAN: Well, there's also a vast difference in terms of the size of the two countries. The United States is almost inherently more powerful, but Ambassador Burt, if you'd get to the point.

Mr. BURT: Well, I guess I would say first of all, I think that my good friend and former colleague Jim Woolsey went a little too far in describing Mr. Ahmadinejad as a homicidal, genocidal, totalitarian or something...

Mr. WOOLSEY: Theocratic, totalitarian, genocidal maniac.

Mr. BURT: I'll get it down on my bumper sticker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOOLSEY: Good idea. Yeah.

Mr. BURT: But, you know, I think the big problem in Iran now is it's very hard to figure out who to talk to. I mean, Mr. Ahmadinejad is an important factor in Iranian politics, but so is the supreme ruler, the Revolutionary Guards. There are other power centers in Iran.

But I think the caller was right to the extent to which it would be nice to see if we could try to have a strategic dialogue with the Iranians to talk about their concerns and our concerns. We haven't been able to do that because it's been hard to even structure that conversation.

But Iran has shown itself to be irresponsible and a force for instability in the region. So the choice isn't always just between diplomacy and military force. I mean, most administrations have pursued both and tried to balance out the two in a way that gets the best outcome.

And I think dealing with Iran, I wish there were a silver bullet. I wish it could be just diplomacy. I wish there was a nice, clean, military option. But in fact, there isn't. It's going to continue to be a very serious and complex problem for us to resolve in the region.

Mr. WOOLSEY: What one needs with Iran is to make sure one can defend against a ballistic missile attack from them. And we have given up two of the programs, such as the airborne laser and also...

DAVID: (Unintelligible)...

CONAN: David, let him talk.

Mr. WOOLSEY: ...boost phase intercept that we were working on, and were going to come online considerably more promptly than they are now, but were cancelled or delayed by the Obama administration a year ago.

That's part of the problem. Getting back into working on those programs that can help us against Iran is going to give the Russians a rationale for saying we are violating the preamble wording of the treaty, and they can withdraw from the new treaty.

CONAN: All right, David, thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next this is Martin(ph), Martin with us from Kansas City.

MARTIN (Caller): Yes, hello, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead. You're on the air.

MARTIN: I have a question. I believe it's for Ambassador Burke(ph).

CONAN: It's Burt, but go ahead.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) a couple of times in the program that the new treaty would weaken our ability to defend ourselves at home, and I think you've partially answered it. But how significant a weakness are we talking about when we are when we have such a huge arsenal to begin with is my question.

CONAN: Well, it would reduce the size of the arsenal, but Ambassador Burt, speak for yourself.

Mr. BURT: Yeah, I think, you know, I don't think we will be, under this treaty, fundamentally changing our long-term strategy vis-a-vis Russia or China or any other nuclear power of deterrence. We will be able to inflict unacceptable damage in the event of any attack on the American homeland or against our allies. So that situation is not going to be changed.

You can have a great argument about how much nuclear capability does deterrence require, but under this treaty, we're going to have over 1,500 nuclear warheads ready for deployment, ready for launch at any one time. That can do unimaginable damage to a would-be adversary. And that situation isn't going to change for many, many years. And the kinds of defensive - strategic defensive capabilities that we are deploying currently are designed to protect against these smaller threats, like the one that's potentially posed by Iran.

And we should be serious about this in the sense that Iran has not yet acquired a nuclear weapon. I'm not even sure - and Jim will, of course, disagree with this - but I'm not sure the Iranians have actually made a decision yet to acquire nuclear weapons. And they may get to a stage where they don't really tell us. We don't really know if they've gone nuclear or not - leave it ambiguous.

But they certainly don't have this capability to reach the American homeland now. Jim mentioned the year 2015. Well, I've been in government long enough to know that somehow those potential dates of deployment of weapons that are going to threaten us always seem to be a little bit premature. But I don't know. I wouldn't try to guess on this, but I don't - I can say categorically now we do not face a threat to the American homeland from Iran.

Mr. WOOLSEY: I think Rick is absolutely wrong. I think that we have now delayed at least the protection of the East Coast of the United States, most of it to 2020 by the Obama administration decisions last year. And with respect to something like a Scud missile, a simple ballistic missile, on something like a fishing boat with a primitive nuclear warhead on it, being able to defend against a threat like that is what was put off by canceling the boost phase and early phase intercept programs, or delaying them seriously, that the administration did a year and a half ago.

It's not a question of the size of an Iranian arsenal. It's a question of whether Ahmadinejad is deterrable the way, say, the old Soviet Union was or whether he is enough of a fanatic that he might do something crazy. And, Rick, you're willing to bank on his rationality a great deal more than I am.

CONAN: Former director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey. Also with us, Ambassador Richard Burt, who helped negotiate the original START treaty back in 1991. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Ryan(ph). Ryan calling from Nashville.

RYAN (Caller): Thanks for taking the call. While I was on listening, my question was, of course, answered. But it was about us taking seriously a threat from Iran that they're going to nuke us from over there. I don't think Ahmadinejad is suicidal, whatever qualities you want to give him. And I believe M.A.D. held the Soviet Union at bay for a long time, and they were doing a lot worse things.

But since you guys already discussed that, I'll just make a comment. If the Republicans would support anything, you know, it might he might be able to take their argument a little more seriously but since they vilify every decision made by this administration, it's really hard to take any of that seriously, especially if we're supposed to be afraid of a nuclear attack from Iran.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And let's discuss the political point. Senator Kyl says he wants to put this off. There are Republicans in the Senate - Richard Lugar, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, has long been the preeminent Republican on nuclear weapons issues and nuclear control issues, who's in favor of this treaty, would like to see it ratified. Is this a game of politics that's being played now, Ambassador Burt?

Mr. BURT: Well, I think it is largely because in the past, these arms treaties have essentially been debates within the American foreign policy and national security establishment. They've had the experts and the former officials and the current officials address them, brief members of Congress. I have the feeling that this time it's more a reflection of the broader politics going on in Washington. I think there is a desire on the part of the Republicans on the Hill not to give President Obama a foreign policy victory. I think there's a desire on the part of maybe some other Republicans to use the treaty as a way of kind of focusing on the special issues or hobbyhorses they may have whether it's...

CONAN: Modernization.

Mr. BURT: ...nuclear weapons, modernization in the labs or - and Jim Woolsey talking about strategic defense. But that's happened before, so I'm not surprised about that. What I worry about here - and I'm not going to also - I don't think the Obama administration did a very good job after this treaty was signed to get up on the Hill, make the case and not find itself in a position where it has to get ratification in the lame-duck session. I think that's an awkward situation to be in. So all of that said though, it's so difficult now for Republicans and Democrats to agree on just about anything, and with 2012 looming and...

CONAN: And I don't mean to cut you off...

Mr. BURT: Sure.

CONAN: ...but I want to give Director Woolsey a chance.

Mr. BURT: I think it's going to be very hard (unintelligible).

Mr. WOOLSEY: I think that - although, this treaty weakens our ability to verify in several regards, not being able to have access to the Russian telemetry and so forth compared with the old START treaty, I think it might be able to get 67 votes in the Senate. If the Senate is convinced, the new Senate coming in, that the Obama administration is seriously looking after the country's interest with respect to nuclear programs, and that involves modernizing the laboratory establishment, 10 laboratory directors, former ones who have written in saying that they have made bad decisions on that.

And it involves going back to instituting some of these ballistic missile programs, which are far more than things that people haven't studied. The ballistic missile defense program for the airborne laser, for example, was well along when the administration effectively delayed it and left us a very difficult situation in terms of dealing with something like the Scud-on-a-fishing-boat threat that a lot of people in the strategic community worry about.

So we've got to make some very tough decisions here, but I don't think it's impossible to get the treaty ratified, but it is I think impossible to get it ratified with it being given - with the Republicans being given the back of their hand - of the administration's hand.

CONAN: Former director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey. Also with us, Ambassador Richard Burt, who helped negotiate the START-1 treaty. Thank you both for your time today. When we come back, we're going to be talking about why Marines - more Marines back Don't Ask, Don't Tell than any other service. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

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