Outright Misreadings Fuel GOP Opposition to New START

April 09, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Quelle surprise. Eli Lake reports today that regardless of Sen. Richard Lugar’s (R-Ind.) support for the New START nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia, the Republican leadership is signaling its dissatisfaction with the treaty:

“Republicans have made clear for months what needs to be done in order to move this process; there’s been no ambiguity in our position on a strong missile defense, nuclear triad and the need to verify any treaty,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, Arizona Republicans, said they are concerned about additional references beyond the opening paragraphs of the treaty on missile defenses.

“While we were initially advised that the only reference to missile defense was in the preamble to the treaty, we now find that there are other references to missile defense, some of which could limit U.S. actions,” they said in a statement.

This is quite a curious set of objections. The “unilateral” Russian references to missile defense don’t appear to be more than the Russians expressing dissatisfaction with missile defense, none of which bind the U.S. from deploying a missile shield. As for verification, for the first time in nuclear-arms treaties with the Russians, New START allows on-site inspections of Russian missile silos and nuclear storage areas — and the main reason for that is if the treaty relied on what’s called telemetry, or information about U.S. missile launches, that would potentially jeopardize missile defense by giving away too much information about the missiles that a missile-defense system relies upon. How’s that for a commitment to missile defense?

And what’s this stuff about the triad? (The “triad” is a shorthand for the three kinds of delivery systems for nuclear weapons: missiles, submarines and bombers.) Not only are all three aspects of the triad preserved in the treaty, the Nuclear Posture Review released this week explicitly preserves it. And, again, it commits the U.S. to deploying a missile defense system. All of this is public information available on the Internet.

The other objection cited in Eli’s piece is about modernization of the nuclear stockpile, something else that the Nuclear Posture Review explicitly pledges, and for which Defense Secretary Gates arranged a $5 billion transfer of funding to the national nuclear laboratories to ensure. To the extent the objection withstands scrutiny, either GOP Senators disbelieve Gates, or they’re trying to resurrect the Reliable Replacement Warhead — a system that experts consider a new nuclear weapon (which the Obama administration doesn’t want to develop) and which Congress killed during the Bush administration.

My understanding is that the Obama administration believes the Senate GOP leadership was always going to make noise about the treaty for political reasons, so the statements here probably don’t come as any surprise. But they do indicate, barometrically, that the leadership considers it more important to give Obama a bloody nose on a crucial aspect of his agenda this year than to cut the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles by 30 percent. On that central issue, the GOP is pretty silent. Doug Feith, the former Bush administration undersecretary of defense, even tells Eli, “There is no problem with a new START treaty in principle.”

So the objection is political, and that means that when hearings start in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the task of administration officials will be to cut off the GOP’s lines of objection, along with pointing out that nuclear-arms control treaties typically pass with huge margins of Senate support as the administration has been doing, from President Obama on down. But precedent isn’t binding on anyone. The key will be whether the GOP leadership decides to bring pressure on the caucus to vote against the treaty or allows senators to vote their own consciences. With Lugar’s support, Obama needs seven GOP senators and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) Tough road ahead for Brian McKeon.