New START -- A Bad Start

Why the White House has gone too far to secure a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty treaty with Russia.

Last week, Senate Minority Leader Jon Kyl, the highest-ranked Republican in the Senate and the second most powerful Republican in Congress, signaled that he would not be willing to move ahead with President Obama's much-loved New START treaty. New START, which was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev last April, is a sweeping update on past START treaties (START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). By signaling his reluctance to rush passage of the treaty before this Congressional session ends, Kyl has delivered a body blow to one of President Obama's primary foreign policy victories to date, and has left the Administration scrambling to secure passage of the Treaty during the current lame-duck Congress.

The treaty is an evolution of various agreements between the United States and Russia to monitor and gradually reduce the size of each nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons. Under it, both sides would have the right to inspect each other's nuclear facilities and operationally deployed warheads would be limited to 1,550 per side. There would also be a limit of 700 “launchers,” which would include some mix of ground- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range heavy bombers. (A further 100 launchers would be allowed to be kept in a non-deployed state as a reserve, in case a “deployed” bomber crashed, for example, it could be replaced without violating the treaty or having to build a new launcher). Tactical nuclear stockpiles would not be effected.

The Treaty is worth ratifying. It would give American officials access to Russian facilities and does not pose any realistic threat to U.S. national security interests. Deterrence would be maintained, as both Russia and the United States would retain more than enough warheads, deployed on numerous delivery systems, to utterly destroy each other as modern, functioning civilizations. The power of both would be balanced. Some early critics of the Treaty worried that its math was flawed because it counted every bomber as one launcher when it could in fact carry multiple warheads, but such concerns miss the forest for the trees. Even if one side were to cheat and break the rules of the treaty when launching a sneak nuclear attack, they would be destroyed anyway. Mutually assured destruction is a fact.

Seeking to preserve one of his major foreign policy victories, the Administration has suggested that failure to ratify the Treaty would jeopardize plans to spend tens of billions of dollars on a modernization program for America's rapidly aging nuclear arsenal. Nuclear weapons have shelf-lives, and are extraordinarily complex machines. Many of the technicians and engineers who built the current generation of warheads during the closing days of the Cold War are now retired, or near to it, and the U.S. Military would like to field a new generation of high-tech, simplified warheads that will be cheaper to maintain, less prone to deterioration over time and more secure against any possible terrorist threat.

Such a program, while important for American national security, has not been confirmed by the White House. Indeed, as the prospects for a speedy passage of New START have soured, Administration officials have even begun to muse that no Treaty might mean no replacement warheads. “There is a risk that not moving ahead with Congress could shatter the fragile consensus on modernizing the nuclear complex,” said a senior Obama Administration official. “New START puts nuclear modernization in the right context for those who worry how it could send the wrong signal to the world and undermine our non-proliferation efforts.”

Politics is politics, and can be played by both sides with equal pettiness. The Administration is eager to secure passage of a Treaty important to the President before the new Congress tilts more power to the Republicans, and the GOP is of course in no particular hurry to do the White House any favors. But by linking a vital military program to a partisan effort to apply political pressure on the Republicans, the White House is going too far.

This is not exactly a break with tradition, however. As the President told a fawning crowd in Prague in 2009, he has long sought a world free of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately for the country he leads, he has shown a habit of moving to weaken the American nuclear force first, and hope the rest of the world catches up later. Last spring the President publicized his Administration's nuclear posture review, which was meant to be a sign of good faith to the world, pledging that America would never strike first with nuclear weapons unless facing an extreme national emergency — as if that really needed to be said. It also disclosed the exact size of America's arsenal, pegged at just over 5,100 warheads.

America needs new nuclear weapons. It does not need more of them, but it needs newer models that it knows that it can depend on to work, if — God help us — they should ever be needed. Both Russia and China have of late been working to improve their long-range strike capabilities, and America cannot afford to fall behind by fielding the world's best missiles with the world's least trustworthy nuclear warheads. It is understandable that President Obama wants to preserve his diplomatic victory. But maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent for his country must be his top priority. Relations with Russia will ebb and flow (currently, they're they are tense) and Congress can be negotiated with as well after the new year as before it. Politics is a rough sport, but the White House must not punish its own country for political defeats it suffers at the hands of a newly energized Republican Party.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at[email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.