Showdown in the Senate

When the President, the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are united, they usually get what they want. And they really want the New START treaty.

America’s national security elites have come out in force in support of New START. Just this morning, five former Republican secretaries of state urged the Senate to ratify the treaty in an op-ed for The Washington Post. They wrote, “we have here an agreement that is clearly in our national interest.”

The military’s case for the treaty is as clear. As Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick (USA, ret.), former Deputy National Security Advisory and defense intelligence official, said, New START “makes America safer.” It is a simple, uncontroversial treaty, based on a framework that Ronald Reagan established decades ago. It reinstates our ability to inspect Russia’s nuclear arsenal – letting U.S. inspectors look “under the hoods” of Russian missiles. It also makes modest reductions in both U.S. and Russian arsenals.

In the face of this overwhelming national security argument, the Senate’s procrastination on New START has always been suspect. Veteran congressional observer Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said last week:

"Nothing is more puzzling, or infuriating, than what is happening to the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. This treaty is supported enthusiastically by Henry Kissinger, James Baker, George Schultz, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Adm. Mike Mullen, virtually every significant military leader active and retired, and all our NATO allies…

"Our military leaders are not prone to wishful thinking or peace-at-any-price thinking. The stakes for America’s national interest, including Iran and Afghanistan, are immense here. Please, guys, suck it up and find a way to make this work."

The U.S. military argues that every day that passes without the treaty is another day that the military remains in the dark on vital intelligence about Russian nuclear forces. Without this intelligence, the military will have to resort to worst-case scenario planning and divert intelligence resources to observing Russia more carefully – including reconnaissance satellites that will have to be moved from Iraq or Afghanistan to cover Russian missile sites. That’s why Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen said, “the military leadership in this country believes that this treaty is essential to our future security...I hope the Senate will ratify it quickly.”

The substantive debate on New START was settled last spring and summer with over 20 Senate hearings and briefing and full answers to almost 1,000 questions submitted for the record—many times the norm for past treaties. Senators have had seven months to review the treaty. Still, as USA Today reports, "A few other Republicans are trotting out issues addressed months ago." Senators who seem to “not have done their homework on time.”

In a last-ditch stall, GOP Minority Whip Senator Jon Kyl is falling back on procedural delay, claiming it would take two weeks to consider the treaty on the floor. But the original, far more complicated START treaty required only five days on the Senate floor, and the Moscow treaty only three. Those arguing against voting on New START this year seem to only want to delay or defeat the treaty. If true, USA Today wrote, it "would be shameful."

The Senate has a long history of support for nuclear reductions treaties. In fact, 23 members of the current Senate were in office when the original START treaty was ratified. All of these senators (seven of whom are Republicans) voted in favor of that treaty. At that time, they cast their votes in line with the recommendations of national security advisors and the U.S. military. The treaties are similar, the military advice the same, the only difference is the president is from a different party. The current flood of petty, partisan politics has no role in national security decisions.

The Senate must put the security of the United States and its allies above political games. An overwhelming case for ratifying New START has been made by security leaders America has trusted for decades from both parties. Now it is not the time and this is not the issue to use as a bargaining chip in the usual Washington political games.