Senate Delays Put National Security at Risk

This morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took to the podium with one message: “Our national security is at risk.” The Senate, she said, cannot afford to delay on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) any longer.

“When the Senate returns they must act,” she urged. New START, she said, “will advance our national security and provide stability and predictability between the world’s two leading nuclear powers.”

What prompted Secretary Clinton’s passionate warning? Deep concern that partisan politics and parochialism will trump national security interests in an election year.

Clinton warned that it has been over eight months since US inspectors were allowed in Russia to monitor its nuclear weapons. The inspectors were forced out when Ronald Reagan’s original START treaty expired last December. We no longer have American boots on the ground to watch over Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal—the only weapons in the world capable of destroying the United States.

The fix is at hand. The administration has negotiated a workman-like extension of the treaty. It improves the inspections, streamlines their implementation and reduces both sides’ long-range nuclear weapons by about 30 percent from previous allowed levels. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the Republican whip, calls it “relatively benign.”

Yet Republican senators are dragging their feet. After 21 hearings and briefings (compared to six for the 2003 George W. Bush SORT treaty that also cut nuclear weapons) and dozens of private, top-level sessions with treaty negotiators and Cabinet officials, they say they still need more information. They have delayed a key Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote and flooded the administration with almost 800 questions for the record—many times the number asked on the SORT treaty. Many see these as stall tactics design to delay a “win” for President Obama before the crucial November elections.

Some senators have more parochial concerns, conditioning their vote on more money for states’ nuclear weapon plants and bases. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said it plainly last week: “All they have to do is find enough money to satisfy Senator Kyl.” He continued, “If it’s important to you, you can find a way, in an over a trillion dollar discretionary budget to fund it. In my view they need to do that, because without that I think the chances of ratification are pretty slim.”

There is no real substantive debate on the merits of the treaty. “This treaty has the full support of your uniformed military,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told the Senate months ago. The treaty does not limit US missile defense plans in any way, testified Director of the Missile Defense Agency Patrick O’Reilly. "The New START treaty actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program," he said.

Every former secretary of state, secretary of defense, and national security advisor going back to the Nixon administration who has weighed in on New START supports its ratification. None have opposed it.

Former Nixon security official Mort Halperin told the Senate that the treaty follows exactly the recommendations of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States chaired by former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and James Schlesinger.

Secretary Clinton is watching the clock. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to vote on the treaty in the first week after recess, either September 15 or 16. Any delay in this vote would kill chances that the treaty could be approved by the full Senate before the end of session on October 8—and likely could not be approved before next spring. That means US inspectors could not return to Russia for months.

“I believe that this treaty is too important,” Clinton said. “It should not be in any way caught up in election year politics.” She warned, “There is an urgency to ratify this treaty…Our ability to know and understand changes in Russia’s nuclear arsenal will erode without the treaty. As time passes, uncertainty will increase.”

Today, at the headquarters of the US Strategic Command in Omaha, Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) announced his wholehearted support for the treaty. “America will be stronger if we can continue to look under Russia’s hood, and they under ours,” he said. “Without this treaty, our understanding of Russian nuclear forces would deteriorate,” he warned. “We’d have a tendency for U.S forces to overcompensate for what we don’t know. That’s a losing strategy in an era of large budget deficits and needed fiscal constraint.”

Next month we will find out if senators heed the counsel offered today and put national security ahead of politics and pork.

Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.