Europe, Headlines, North America, Nuclear Energy - Nuclear Weapons, Peace

Obama Scores Win with New START Ratification

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Dec 22 2010 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama scored key wins Wednesday in both foreign policy and domestic politics as more than the required two-thirds of the Senate – including 13 Republicans who defied their party’s leadership – voted to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia.

Obama hailed the bipartisan outcome during a short-notice press conference in which he claimed that it “sends a powerful signal to the world that Republicans and Democrats stand together on behalf of our security”.

“This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades, and it will make us safer and reduce our nuclear arsenals along with Russia,” he declared.

On the foreign policy front, ratification not only preserves Obama’s vision of strengthening the global nuclear non- proliferation regime and promoting a gradual global denuclearisation remain alive.

More immediately, it also gives renewed momentum to his much-heralded “re-set” of relations with Russia. Moscow’s cooperation on Obama’s two most pressing overseas priorities – curbing Iran’s nuclear programme and prosecuting Washington’s counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan – is seen here as critical to prospects for their success.

In a sign of approval, officials in Moscow said Wednesday that the Russian Duma is likely to vote for ratification later this week.

On the political front, the fact that so many Republicans voted with the administration confirms the existence of serious internal differences – at least on national security issues – that can be effectively exploited by Obama, even as it faces a new, more Republican Congress next month.

Moreover, Wednesday’s vote comes on top of several other perceived legislative victories by Obama since last month’s disastrous mid-term election. Notably, these include the passage of an $850-billion package of tax cuts and stimulus measures and the repeal – strenuously opposed by right-wing Republicans – of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy that banned openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the U.S. military.

“The result is that the president is closing out the year looking a lot more formidable as a political player than he did just a week ago, let alone after the mid-terms,” said one Capitol Hill staffer, referring to the self-described “shellacking” Obama suffered in the November elections.

Wednesday’s ratification of New START capped an intense three-week lobbying campaign conducted by the White House and backed by the Pentagon, the chiefs of the armed services, and former top national security officials ranging across five Republican administrations, including former President George H. W. Bush himself, and former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice.

Signed last April, the substantive provisions of the treaty are considered relatively modest. It requires both Washington and Moscow to reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads from around 2,200 to no more than 1,550 within seven years.

It will also permit the resumption of mutual inspections by both parties. They were halted last year when the previous START treaty, signed by Bush senior in 1991, expired.

Despite the treaty’s modest provisions, right-wing Republicans, led by Minority Whip John Kyl, opposed ratification, arguing that some of the treaty’s language might be used to curb the development of U.S. missile- defence systems and that the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons held by Russia were not covered under its terms. They also insisted that the treaty’s verification provisions were inadequate.

But their strongest objection was political: that Obama should not try to force through an arms-control treaty during a lame-duck session of Congress, particularly when the Democratic majority will be substantially reduced in the incoming Congress.

“I can’t understand why we can’t wait five more weeks to ratify,” complained Sen. Lindsey Graham Tuesday when the chamber voted 67-28 to end five days of debate on the treaty.

Treaty supporters knew that, with six additional Republicans in the incoming Senate, the administration would have found it much more difficult and politically costly to gain ratification.

As it was, the administration conceded on a number of issues during negotiations with Kyl before the November elections. Among other things, it agreed to commit nearly $85 billion for a proposed five-year nuclear-arms modernisation programme.

The administration was stunned when, after the elections, Kyl, backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, suggested that the vote on ratification be delayed until next year.

At that point, the White House’s lobbying efforts shifted into high gear, while peace, disarmament, and church-based groups mobilised their supporters to press “swing” senators at the local level.

Although at the time only one Republican senator – Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – had come out in strong public support of the treaty, at least half a dozen others had hinted they were inclined to vote yes under the right circumstances.

In the following weeks, the White House lined up all living former secretaries of state, most secretaries of defence, and all living former presidents except George W. Bush. It also elicited strongly supportive statements by key NATO allies and by several key Jewish groups worried that the treaty’s defeat would result in the end of Moscow’s cooperation with Washington on Iran.

Ranged against them were the far-right Heritage Foundation, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton of the American Enterprise Institute, a number of prominent neo- conservatives, such as the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, and several likely 2012 presidential candidates, including, most notably, Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney.

Despite polling showing overwhelming public support for ratification, McConnell and Kyl sided with the latter group in what now appears to have been a major political miscalculation, one that became much clearer when the number-three Republican, Lamar Alexander, broke ranks Tuesday.

“Republicans have only themselves to blame here,” wrote Adam Serwer on the American Prospect website. “Because Senate Republicans turned ratification into a huge partisan brawl, a Democratic president renewing an agreement with Russia designed by Republican presidents now looks like a massive victory for the administration.”

“In the end, over one-quarter of the Republican Caucus took the advice of the Joint Chiefs and nearly every living former secretary of defence and state over the recommendations of Jon Kyl and John Bolton,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, one of the treaty’s major non-governmental backers.

“Their extreme views advocating more weapons and more wars have been rejected by those who know them best,” he went on. “This is a very hopeful sign for future debates on nuclear policy, on military action and on military budgets.”

Despite that assessment, however, most observers believe that Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – Obama’s top legislative priority on his disarmament agenda after New START – will not be possible with the incoming Senate, where right-wing Republicans will be stronger than ever.

As a result, the administration is considered likely to pursue more modest measures, such as an accord with Russia to reduce tactical nuclear weapons, designed to persuade the international community that Washington is committed to denuclearisation as a long-term goal.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s vote is likely to further warm ties with Moscow where Russian officials this week publicly warned against the treaty’s defeat or delay.

“Perhaps as significant as the treaty’s impact on the two countries’ nuclear arsenals is its contribution to the ongoing improvement in U.S.-Russia relations,” said Dylan Myles-Primakoff, a Russia expert at Georgetown University’s Emerging Threats Project.

“If this hadn’t passed, it could have jeopardised Washington’s use of Russian territory and airspace to transport troops and supplies to Afghanistan and Moscow’s willingness to refrain from vetoing any new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran,” he added.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

Republish | | Print |

the art of learning josh waitzkin