WASHINGTON — Condoleezza Rice believes the U.S. Senate should ratify a new arms control treaty with Russia. So does her successor, Hillary Clinton. Henry Kissinger wants it, as does Madeleine Albright.
Sen. Dick Lugar, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a high-profile supporter of the treaty. So is former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who once worked with Lugar to create a program to dismantle nuclear weapons.
That all-star backing for the New START treaty would seem to suggest that its ratification will be a simple matter. You’d think conservative Republicans, after learning that current and former military leaders also back New START, would find the treaty an easy call to bi-partisanship.
Well, you’d be wrong. A contingent of GOP Senators has decided that the opportunity to weaken President Obama abroad and embarrass him at home is more important than patriotic duty. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), Senate Republicans’ point man on the treaty, announced last week that he will block a vote on the pact.
This isn’t what you’d expect from a “loyal” opposition. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was not exactly subtle in declaring the most important goal for Senate Republicans — stopping Obama from gaining a second term.
“It seems some of our friends on the conservative side need to ask themselves the question, ‘Are we really putting U.S. security first?’ ” said Nunn, who now heads a Washington-based, non-partisan outfit called the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “Those who are trying to shoot Obama, the bullet is going to go right through Obama and shoot U.S. credibility in the world.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has called the treaty “essential to our future security.” The old Soviet Union is dead, but Russia remains a critical player on the world stage. We need its help to keep secure supply routes into Afghanistan and, most important, the U.S. needs Russia to help rein in Iran. If the U.S. ratifies the treaty, our relationship with Russia will be strengthened.
But for those ultra-conservatives who tend toward unilateralism — who believe the United States can conduct her affairs without allies — there is still another critical reason to ratify the treaty: Without it, the U.S. has no ability to send inspectors to check on the Russian nuclear arsenal. The old START treaty, which gave Russia and the United States each the right to inspect the other’s nuclear weapons, expired last December.
The end of that agreement has persuaded Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) to support New START. “We’ve gone 19 years with our own agents being able, at no notice, to verify Russia’s weapons,” he told me.
“We learned a lesson on 9/11 about what happens when we don’t have human intelligence. At a time when we’re trying to get transparency of some type on Iran, to turn our backs on the transparency we’ve had for 19 years doesn’t make sense.”
But the weaken-Obama-at-all-costs crowd continues to hold out, claiming, among other things, that the treaty would interfere with our ability to modernize our nuclear weapons. It wouldn’t. Obama has pledged $84 billion over ten years to modernize, considerably more than his predecessor spent and, probably, considerably more than is needed.
Some critics also contend that the treaty would limit the ability of the United States to defend itself. That’s just not so. Both Russia and the U.S. would retain enough nukes to “basically destroy each other and destroy a large part of the Earth, God’s creation,” Nunn pointed out.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Republican opposition is this: It is an approach to Russia’s nuclear arsenal endorsed by Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the modern conservative movement. The very first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — or START — was proposed by Reagan, who also popularized the phrase “trust but verify.”
According to ultra-conservative stalwart Pat Buchanan, Reagan would have supported this new pact. In a recent column, Buchanan wrote, “. . .Simply because this treaty is ‘Obama’s treaty’ does not mean it is not in America’s interest.”
But for many in the current GOP leadership, signing on to “Obama’s treaty” would not be in their short-term political interest. And, unfortunately, that’s more important to them than their duty to their country.