The New START treaty deserves to be ratified

Here we go again.

President Obama signed a nuclear arms control agreement — the New START treaty — with Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in April to much fanfare. Senate hearings on the treaty are taking place. But in a reprise of Cold War debates, hard-liners are seeking to block Senate ratification of the treaty, where it needs a two-thirds majority, by depicting the deal as a dangerous sellout to Moscow. The treaty deserves careful scrutiny, but it is in danger of becoming the victim of a hazing campaign.

The Heritage Foundation announces on its website that it “has been leading the charge against New START treaty, as we do with all threats to American sovereignty and independence. And our message is getting through to our target audience in Congress.” Indeed it is. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is citing the foundation’s studies. Other Republican senators expressing doubts include Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. The most inflammatory attack, however, has come from former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, he claimed the treaty represented Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake yet.”

It’s not a mistake. The treaty would not eviscerate American national security. It would enhance it, which is why it enjoys the bipartisan support of the Foreign Relations Committee leaders, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. It’s also why GOP foreign policy eminences such as Henry Kissinger, George P. Shultz and Richard Burt endorse the treaty.

By capping each side’s deployed warheads at 1,550, the New START treaty would cut Russia’s and America’s arsenals by about 30%. It would also restore verification procedures that lapsed with the expiration of the START I treaty. Each Russian missile would be given a unique serial number, and onsite inspections would take place. Tracking nuclear weapons and materials safeguards U.S. security. And the more concerned conservatives are about Russian intentions, the more they should welcome the verification procedures contained in the New START treaty.

But its opponents are not about to let facts stand in their way. They never have. As J. Peter Scoblic shows in his valuable book, “U.S. Versus Them,” the right has a long, misguided history of fulminating against nuclear arms control. Richard Nixon and Kissinger were labeled as appeasers for the 1972 strategic arms limitation talks with Moscow. Jimmy Carter was attacked for his efforts to reduce nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan, who entered office denouncing arms control efforts but ended up signing sweeping agreements, was accused by his more overheated followers of being a “useful idiot” and committing “nuclear suicide.” Instead, Reagan’s readiness to reach out to Mikhail Gorbachev helped bring about the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

Obama’s critics are intent on portraying him as bent on nuclear suicide as well. To derail the New START treaty, they are advancing a welter of objections, many related to missile defense. Never mind that after decades of research, there is no such system in sight, or that Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, has testified that he sees no constraints on missile defense in the treaty.

In its preamble, the treaty states that offensive and defensive weapons are related — a truism akin to acknowledging that water is wet. Treaty foes, however, combine this statement with the fact that the treaty is designed to control offensive weapons and charge that the preamble wording potentially disallows the construction of a missile defense system. A related criticism holds that the treaty would give Moscow a unilateral veto over missile defense by allowing it to exit the agreement if it chose to — but that right applies to both sides and is a customary part of any treaty.

The opponents also point to the fact that Russia will continue to possess tactical — limited flying range — nuclear weapons that threaten Europe. Repeating the Heritage Foundation’s talking points almost verbatim, Romney declared that Obama, in pushing for the treaty, “fails to mention that Russia will retain more than 10,000 nuclear warheads that are categorized as tactical because they are mounted on missiles that cannot reach the United States.” But if there is no agreement on long-range strategic nuclear weapons, why would Russia even consider entering separate treaty negotiations on the much more difficult issue of reducing tactical nuclear weapons?

And so it goes with other objections relating to bombers, multiple warheads and other details, where these opponents contort the text and the weapons totals in order to reach the most alarming conclusions. Just about the only thing the critics aren’t accusing Obama of is handing over his nuclear briefcase to the Kremlin.

What’s at the bottom of conservative objections has far less to do with the New START treaty’s provisions than its spirit. Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, Kyl made it clear he finds the idea of a nuclear-free world abhorrent. He warns that Obama will not spend enough to modernize America’s nuclear force.

Kyl and his brethren are living in the past. Russia is no longer an implacable Cold War foe, although treating it as one could reverse that. In furthering arms reductions, Obama is wisely improving relations with Russia and helping to fulfill Reagan’s vision of a nuclear-free world, a goal shared by Kissinger and Shultz who advocate a move toward “global zero.” Instead of dithering over the New START treaty, the Senate should approve it this fall.

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest.