Memo to Republican Senators: Killing New START is Bad Politics (And May Undermine Iran Nuclear Talks)

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

November 27, 2010

It’s surprising to see Senate Republicans refusing to vote for New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia. Originally borne out of Ronald Reagan’s wish to abolish all nuclear weapons in the 1980s, New START limits the number of U.S. and Russian warheads to 1,550 for each side (the figure was over 10,000 when START I was signed in 1991).

(Click here for the full text of the treaty.)

Led by Jon Kyl of Arizona, Senate Republicans argue that New START would only make sense if the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “modernized” and old weapons are replaced with new ones. In order to assuage Mr. Kyl’s concerns, the Obama administration has allocated $80 billion over the next 10 years to replace aging nuclear weapons. About ten days ago, however, Mr. Kyl’s office issued a brief statement, which considered the passage of New START unlikely because the White House had failed to address numerous Republican concerns. (Foreign treaties require 2/3 of the U.S. Senate’s vote to get ratified. Thus, when the new Congress begins its work on January 3, the Obama administration will need support from at least 15 Republicans – an unlikely prospect.)

Add to that criticism from Mitt Romney (he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and is the most likely name to lead the Republican ticket in 2012), who claims – quite erroneously, as Fred Kaplan correctly points out – that New START would weaken U.S. posture around the globe, the delay in the Senate appears to have ulterior motives.

It looks like Republicans are using the critical treaty to weaken President Obama and decrease his chances for re-election in 2012.

This can turn into a major foreign policy blunder for the Republican Party. As The Atlantic’s Max Fisher indicates, not only would non-ratification weaken U.S. diplomacy around the world (no foreign government would want to strike a bargain with a divided United States; why sign an agreement with the Americans if it’s going to be killed in the U.S. Senate?), it would also damage Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, a key ally when it comes to resolving the standoff over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Mr. Medvedev’s support had enabled the United States to pass resolution 1929 from the UN Security Council, which imposed additional sanctions on Iran last summer.

If New START enters into force, both Washington and Moscow can gain the momentum that’s necessary to lead the world into total nuclear abolition. The two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals committing themselves to reducing their stockpiles is a powerful argument against proliferation. It would give the United States, Russia, and other members of P5+1 greater credibility vis-à-vis Iran during the upcoming talks in Geneva.

On the other hand, killing New START would destroy the whole point of talking to Iran over its nuclear program: How can the P5+1 tell Iran not to obtain nuclear weapons if its leading member seems unwilling to curtail a portion of its nuclear forces? How can the United States convince Iran that nuclear weapons are bad if some American politicians cannot part ways with The Bomb?

In the final analysis, it’s understandable that Republicans are trying to weaken Mr. Obama and decreasing his re-election chances. Politics is politics.

But New START should not be one of those anti-Obama maneuvers. It’s simply too important to U.S. interests around the world – especially non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.

Given Mr. Obama’s problems, Republicans will probably have other opportunities to undermine him. But if the Republicans use New START against Mr. Obama and manage to win the presidency in 2012, the new Republican president may find himself (herself?) dealing with bigger proliferation headaches.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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