Officials in the White House must be sweating bullets. Fresh off its "shellacking" by Republicans during the November midterm elections, the Obama administration now faces a rapidly closing window of opportunity to pass what has become one of its top foreign policy priorities: the new strategic arms reduction pact inked with Moscow this past spring.
That deal, colloquially known as New START, has been controversial from the outset. A successor to the lapsed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty concluded by President George H.W. Bush and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, back in 1991, it seeks to reinvigorate the strategic arms control dialogue between Russia and the United States. It does so by committing both countries to slashing existing nuclear stockpiles by about 30 percent, to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads apiece, and limiting the total number of ballistic missile launchers and nuclear-armed bombers available to each side.
So far, so good—at least in theory. In practice, however, the treaty contains a number of serious deficiencies. First, it fails to address, or to limit, Russia's current, ambitious strategic modernization efforts. This means that the Kremlin will be able to reconstitute its nuclear arsenal in the future, if it chooses to do so, thereby erasing any gains in disarmament made under New START. Second, the Treaty is silent on "tactical," or battlefield, nukes, of which Russia has an order of magnitude more than does the U.S.—and which represent at least as much of a threat as their larger, "strategic" counterparts. Perhaps most pernicious of all, however, is the quid pro quo that many suspect the White House has agreed to: limiting future missile defense development in exchange for reductions in the Russian strategic arsenal.
These practical problems are compounded by procedural ones. To date, the White House has refused to publicly release the negotiating record for the treaty. Such internal memoranda and communiqués are part and parcel of all meaningful international deliberations, and provide important clues about tacit deals which might have been struck as adjuncts to the official agreement. That the White House has been exceedingly reluctant to share this documentation has only fueled suspicions that a Faustian bargain of sorts has been struck by Washington and Moscow.
Then there is the issue of voting on the treaty during the lame duck session of Congress now underway. That Members of Congress recently voted out of office in the most decisive midterm electoral rout in recent memory might cast deciding votes in favor of New START is, in the words of one commentator, akin to "fired executives deciding on a corporate merger just before turning in their keys to the executive bathroom."
All of which explains why a number of senators have said that New START needs to be scrapped in favor of a different arms control understanding with the Russians. Others have argued that, at the very least, voting on the treaty should be delayed until the new Congress is in session.
That's exactly what the White House is hoping to avoid. Come January, the Republican opposition in the Senate will be greatly strengthened with the influx of ten new members, and passage of New START will become even more difficult than it is at the moment. This is why the White House has dangled a tantalizing carrot in front of its critics. President Obama is said to have offered an additional $4 billion (above and beyond money already pledged) to modernize America's nuclear weapons, a longstanding priority of conservatives involved in defense and national security issues.
But that offer has been balanced against a hefty bit of nuclear blackmail. "There is a risk that not moving ahead with [Congressional ratification] could shatter the fragile consensus on modernizing the nuclear complex," a senior administration official recently told the Financial Times. The message is clear: the Obama administration may rethink its entire promised ten-year, $80 billion plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear stockpile unless New START is ratified, and soon.
Opponents of the treaty thus find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand is the tantalizing promise of real, substantive strategic modernization, but at the cost of an ill-conceived arms accord with Moscow. On the other is a principled stand against New START, and the very real risk that modernization could fall by the wayside as a result.
It doesn't have to be this way. As former CIA director Jim Woolsey has written, America's nuclear deterrent serves as "our ultimate guarantee of national security." As such, it is far too important to be used as a political football by an Administration eager to ram through its foreign policy agenda no matter the cost. And the more the American people learn that the Obama administration is willing to sacrifice their safety on the altar of arms control with Russia, the greater the resulting pressure on the White House to keep its word and commit to fully funding nuclear modernization, with no strings attached.
That, in turn, would enable lawmakers to evaluate New START honestly, without worrying they might harm American security in the process. Given the treaty's inherent deficiencies, such a debate on the merits might be just what the doctor ordered.