Bait and switch defense for new START

James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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With concern over the arms control agreement President Obama signed with Russia growing, those pushing for ratification are devising increasingly far-fetched reasons why the Senate should rubber-stamp New START rather than give the treaty the serious and deliberate scrutiny a nuclear arms deal deserves. From the beginning, arguments for the treaty have sounded like scare tactics, an impression only reinforced by the recent allegations that New START will compromise national security.

In his most recent effort to drum up support for the treaty, William Hartung asserted in the Daily Caller that, “without New START, there will be no verification system to help monitor what Russia is doing in the nuclear sphere. It doesn’t make sense to deprive our military of that critical information.”

Hartung’s argument for the treaty of course runs completely counter to the narrative advanced by New START’s chief cheerleader Sen. John Kerry (D–MA) who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Kerry argues that the treaty should be signed because “relations with Moscow are far better” than they were during the Cold War. Well, time out: Which is it? We need the treaty because we trust the Russians? Or do we have to sign the treaty because we can’t trust the Russians?

Hartung and Kerry need to get their stories straight.

I would actually agree with Hartung that we ought to worry about what the Russians are doing. We have lots of reasons not to trust them—particularly regarding nuclear issues. The Russians primary interests in pursuing New START are to limit U.S. missile defenses and solidify their position as domineering nuclear power. How does trying to help them achieve their ends improve our national security? In fact, helping Russia become a more domineering nuclear power is a much more significant national security threat than a temporary lapse in the verification regime.

The savage truth is that the Russians are going to upgrade their arsenal no matter what we do. That said, it seems utterly illogical to rush to sign New START when we know the verification procedures are completely inadequate.

The New START Treaty’s verification regime is not even a pale reflection of the verification regime for the original START Treaty. The decline of verification standards is striking when one remembers the late 1990s, when U.S. President William Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin were discussing a START III agreement, limiting strategic nuclear forces to 2,000–2,500 warheads. For this decrease in strategic nuclear forces, increasingly stringent verification measures were considered mandatory. While it is not known what the Obama administration proposed for New START, they certainly did not come away from the negotiating table with a treaty and a verification regime appropriate for low levels of nuclear forces. A regime that permits widespread cheating is just as bad, indeed it is worse, than a gap in verification. Why rush into a treaty to obtain verification measures that are inadequate? A poor treaty will only increase the likelihood that the U.S. and Russia will be at odds in the future—and that is a much greater security risk.

Nor should we forget that it is the administration that negotiated the treaty that put us in this predicament to begin with. The White House could have elected to focus on concluding an early agreement with Russia on transparency and verification measures by amending the Moscow Treaty. This was the simpler way to salvage them. Extending the Moscow Treaty would have given the White House more space to try to negotiate a better deal. The administration ignored this advice and went for a more far-reaching and complicated agreement—and got its clocks cleaned by Moscow at the negotiating table.

Proponents of the treaty persist in arguing that we have no other options. That is wrong. The Senate can amend the treaty and fix its many flaws. Or the Senate can reject it outright and send the boys back to Moscow to negotiate a new one. In either case these are better options than being hamstrung by an inadequate treaty for the next decade.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.