Right Strikes Out on START

This week the Senate Armed Services Committee held a highly classified hearing on what is probably the core issue of the treaty: verification. Next week the committee holds an open hearing on treaty implementation. That should bring a few howls of anguish from Republicans committed to squashing the treaty, afraid it will leave the United States less safe in a dangerous world. Earlier this week, we ran a START commentary by a group created by the folks at Heritage. Today, the left -- in the form of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation -- swings back, arguing that START will make us safer.

This week the Senate Armed Services Committee held a highly classified hearing on what is probably the core issue of the treaty: verification. Next week the committee holds an open hearing on treaty implementation. That should bring a few howls of anguish from Republicans committed to squashing the treaty, afraid it will leave the United States less safe in a dangerous world. Earlier this week, we ran a START commentary by a group created by the folks at Heritage. Today, the left — in the form of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation – swings back, arguing that START will make us safer.

In “Right Strikes Against START”, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Michael Needham leaps to the defense of once and future presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who wrote a Washington Post op-ed last week attacking the New START treaty. Romney’s piece prompted a swift rebuttal from Republican Senator Richard Lugar, whose signature Cooperative Threat Reduction program has been protecting the United States from Russian “loose nukes” for almost 20 years. Lugar accused Romney of repeating “discredited objections” and being “unaware of arms control history and context.”

This is not the type of criticism an aspiring presidential candidate wants to hear, particularly coming from a statesman of Lugar’s stature. But because Romney littered his op-ed with talking points conjured up by Heritage, Needham really had no choice but to try to push back.

The gist of Needham’s complaint is that the “many noted and respected foreign policy observers [who] have serious concerns with the treaty” are being ignored. He then cites the fears of a Heritage analyst, three former George W. Bush administration appointees, and a former Republican senator who just happens to be a Heritage distinguished fellow. These are all great Americans, to be sure. But citing their criticisms of New START is a bit like citing professor Noam Chomsky’s criticisms of the Bush administration – there is a slight selection bias problem.

In reality, the remarkable thing about New START is the wide-ranging bipartisan consensus in support of the agreement. For starters, Secretary of Defense (and former Cold Warrior) Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, all the Service Chiefs, STRATCOM Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton, and Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly strongly support the treaty on the grounds that it limits and allows the monitoring of Russia’s still enormous nuclear arsenal.  Keep in mind that these military leaders, who have access to all the pertinent intelligence information and analysis, assumed their current positions under the Presidency of George W. Bush.

In addition to our nation’s military leadership, former secretaries of defense James Schlesinger and William Perry, former secretaries of state James Baker and Henry Kissinger, and former national security advisors Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley have all testified that the Senate should give its advice and consent to ratification of the treaty. Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Frank Carlucci, Chuck Hagel, John Danforth and many other prominent national security experts also believe that the treaty strengthens U.S. security. These aren’t woolly-headed academics or naïve idealists. These are men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting the security of the United States.

Needham’s recycled substantive objections do not hold much water, either. For example, he suggests the treaty is a bad deal for the United States because it will allow Russia to modernize its nuclear forces.  Yet without New START, the United States would have far less insight into Russia’s modernization programs than it would with the treaty.  Moreover, the treaty retains and augments the U.S. ability to “upload” warheads relatively quickly on missiles and bombers, a capability that the Russians can never hope to match.

The concerns expressed about New START not restricting tactical nuclear weapons are not persuasive.  On the contrary, they actually make the case for New START even stronger.  Failure to ratify New START would make it impossible to reach a subsequent agreement with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons. That’s why former Republican Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, whom the Wall Street Journal called conservatives’ nuclear Yoda, agreed under oath that ratifying New START is “obligatory” and a precursor to reducing tactical nukes.

There are also complaints that the Obama administration agreed to restrictions on missile defense schemes that U.S. military leaders believe don’t make sense for U.S. security. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has joked, conservatives would no doubt complain if New START restricted missile defenses launched from cows. The fact is that there is nothing in the treaty which limits the U.S. ability to pursue robust missile defenses against limited threats from Iran or North Korea, which is exactly what U.S. missile defenses are designed to do. In fact, according to Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, “The New START Treaty reduces constraints on the development of missile defense programs in several areas.”

Needham is right that New START should be judged on whether it makes the United States safer.  Our entire military leadership and countless former Republican and Democratic statesmen say that it will. They back it because the treaty’s legally-binding limits and monitoring and verification provisions will cap the growth of Russia’s deployed forces and give us an essential window into their composition and location that we haven’t had since START I expired last December.  And the more stable and predictable the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship, the better off our allies are – which explains why so many of them support New START.

If New START is not ratified there will continue to be no verifiable limits on Russia’s nuclear forces and U.S. inspectors will remain in the United States and not be on the ground in Russia inspecting Russia’s nuclear arsenal.  As STRATCOM Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton put it, this would be “the worst of both possible worlds.”

>Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Travis Sharp is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security. They blog about nuclear weapons policy at Nukes of Hazard.