New START Revives Old Debates: What's At Stake

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague on April 8, 2010. i

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague on April 8. Obama has made the ratification of the new START his key foreign policy goal before the new Senate is sworn in next month. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague on April 8, 2010.

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague on April 8. Obama has made the ratification of the new START his key foreign policy goal before the new Senate is sworn in next month.

Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

It wasn't supposed to be a nail-biter. But the outcome of the Senate vote scheduled for Tuesday to ratify the New START, the arms reduction treaty with Russia, remains in some doubt.

The pact would replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, or START, which expired last December. As with all treaties, a two-thirds vote of the Senate is required for New START's ratification.

President Obama has cast the New START as an important milestone in the so-called reset of U.S. relations with Russia.

But treaty opponents — led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jon Kyl of Arizona, the two top Republican Senate leaders — say that the administration has given up too much autonomy to the Russians, in particular putting future development of U.S. missile defense systems at risk. They also don't like having to vote on a major treaty during a lame-duck session of Congress.

A 1989 photo shows the U.S. Navy launching a Trident II D-5 missile from a submerged submarine. i

A 1989 photo shows the U.S. Navy launching a Trident II D-5 missile from the submerged submarine USS Tennessee in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. President Obama has cast the New START as an important milestone in the "reset" of U.S. relations with Russia. Phil Sandlin/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Sandlin/AP
A 1989 photo shows the U.S. Navy launching a Trident II D-5 missile from a submerged submarine.

A 1989 photo shows the U.S. Navy launching a Trident II D-5 missile from the submerged submarine USS Tennessee in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. President Obama has cast the New START as an important milestone in the "reset" of U.S. relations with Russia.

Phil Sandlin/AP

As the Senate prepares to vote, here's an outline of some of the key political dynamics and substantial arguments that are in play:

What Would The Treaty Do?

New START is less ambitious than some of the arms reduction agreements reached with the old Soviet Union. While earlier treaties reduced each nation's arsenal by up to 50 percent of its strategic warheads, New START limits each country to 1,550 missiles at the end of a seven-year implementation period — down from current limits of 1,700 to 2,200 apiece by December 2012.

The U.S. and Russia signed New START back in April. It was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September on a 14-4 vote.

Critics of the treaty note that it would create a less robust monitoring regime for checking Russia's nuclear capabilities than had been the case under the old START. But because that treaty has expired, the Obama administration argues that without the new regime, the U.S. will lack any real ability to check up on things within Russia.

"Failure to ratify New START would undermine U.S. national security in numerous ways," says Travis Sharp, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, "including the forfeit of critical on-the-ground inspections that allow American officials to verify the size and conditions of Russian nuclear forces."

How Much Republican Support Is Needed?

The administration has pushed the Senate to ratify the treaty before the year's end. Clearly, politics is in play in terms of the timing.

To get the 67 votes needed, at least nine Republican senators will have to support ratification. Given the GOP's gains in the November elections, the number of Republicans needed would go up closer to 15.

"The administration could probably get it passed in the next Senate," says Stephen Flanagan, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "On the other hand, they're worried, because it's already been delayed two or three times."

The Obama administration notes that the treaty has the backing of many — but not all —former top Republican foreign policy officials, including former President George H.W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state under the second President Bush.

"If the treaty is explicitly rejected, it will certainly cause substantial friction in relations between the U.S. and Russia," says Michael A. Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It will be much more difficult to negotiate stricter limits in the future, which opponents [of the treaty] say they want."

Would Rejection Harm The U.S.?

Levi says that the treaty "is certainly not perfect." But he argues that its rejection would be a blow to U.S. efforts abroad. Other countries would become more wary of the ability of the president and his negotiating agents to close deals back home.

"The main damage immediately is the issue of U.S. credibility in negotiating international agreements," says Flanagan, the CSIS vice president.

Rejecting New START would also set back relations with Russia, which the Obama administration has been trying to rebuild since they reached a low point after Russia's incursions into the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008. The administration has sought Russian cooperation in addressing a range of other problem areas, from Iran and Afghanistan to North Korea.

"There is certainly a battle within Russia between those who want to cooperate with the West and those who seek a hard line," Levi says. "Rejection of the treaty would strengthen the hand of those who don't want to cooperate."

Eric Edelman, a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, agrees that rejecting New START would "be a blow to the president's credibility." But it wouldn't be the end of the world, he says.

"The SALT II treaty [of 1979] was never ratified," Edelman says, "and we eventually got an even better arms reduction treaty with Russia later on."

What Are Opponents' Main Concerns?

Much of the debate about New START has devolved into arguments about procedure and politics. Republicans are angry that ratification has been jammed into the busy lame-duck agenda, with debate interrupted by other matters such as scholarships for immigrants and gays serving openly in the military.

Democrats accuse the Republicans of posturing, noting that the treaty has already been the subject of numerous committee hearings and months of discussion.

But some Senate Republicans have raised substantive criticisms, too. They have sought to address these through amendments. Because any amendment would require negotiations to be reopened with Russia, however, Senate Democrats have united in opposition to any changes.

Republican critics are worried about issues such as how to count weapons that would be made mobile by rail and whether the new verification scheme would be adequate. Their main concern, however, centers on the question of whether New START would hamper U.S. ability to deploy missile defense systems.

Much of the political back and forth about missile defense has centered on the question of the importance of language in the treaty's nonbinding preamble — or lack thereof.

"The general in charge of our missile defense agency, who is responsible for this program, says unequivocally ... and publicly, there is no restraint — zero, none — no restraint whatsoever on our missile defense capacity," John Kerry (D-MA), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday on ABC's This Week.

Edelman, a former Defense Department undersecretary under President George W. Bush who opposes the treaty, concedes that the preamble language itself "would be irritating, but not fatal."

But he also warns that language within the body of the treaty itself imposes limitations on the U.S. that would preclude converting certain submarine and nuclear missile launchers for use in missile defense.

The administration insists that's not a problem, because it has no intention of using such launchers for missile defense anyway. But Edelman notes not all future administrations might have the same plans. The U.S. needs to maintain flexibility, he says, to address threats from countries with smaller arsenals, such as North Korea and, potentially, Iran.

The fact that much of the debate about New START has devolved into he-said, she-said arguments about interpretations of particular provisions — not just between Republicans and Democrats, but between Russia and the U.S. over certain "loopholes" — does not bode well for the future, Edelman argues.

Key parts of the treaty, he says, could end up serving mainly as a source for argument. "This is going to end up becoming more of a bone of contention," Edelman says, "than an aid to improved relations with Russia."

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