Winning the Nuclear PR War

Also published here.

It was in 1983, one of the most tense years of the Cold War, when the Reagan administration was deploying Pershing II missiles in Europe, and the arms race with the Soviet Union was at a fevered pitch, that a young man at Columbia University wrote a rather interesting article discussing the nuclear freeze movement, student activism, and what it all signified. He concluded that:

[The nuclear freeze movement] is at once a warning to us that the old solutions of more weapons and again more weapons will no longer be accepted in a Europe that is already a powderkeg waiting to go off; and it is an invitation to work towards a peace that is genuine, lasting and non-nuclear.

Twenty-two years later, this same man would become a US Senator and begin to put words into action via significant nuclear non-proliferation legislation. Nuclear arms reduction became a top-tier issue of his presidential campaign; when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, he kept nuclear weapons as a central issue of his administration.

Obama speaking in Prague, April 2009. Click the image to watch the video.

His April 2009 speech in Prague was a much more sophisticated version of his musings as a student. In it, he laid out his goals for the US nuclear posture as well as a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START. He  emphasized that though the US would maintain a “safe, secure, and effective” nuclear arsenal, his goal was to reduce the role nuclear weapons play in our national security strategy. He also indicated that he hoped the US and Russia could negotiate a New START treaty by the end of 2009.

Well, the reality is that both the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and New START have been delayed considerably. The NPR will probably not be out until late March or April; New START negotiators have taken a break and will meet again sometime in the first two weeks of March.

Understandably, given the administration's ongoing emphasis on nuclear weapons issues, the pundits, wonks, and national security reporters are all trying to read the tea leaves regarding these delays. Commentary on the NPR has ranged from tersely worded reprimands to constructive attempts to discover reasons for the delay, as well as a number of thoughtful “what next?” pieces.

Most significant were a couple of pieces on New START, published by Josh Rogin at The Cable (a Foreign Policy blog). The pieces were significant because, despite their questionable sourcing, they were snapped up with very few questions asked. The lack of response by the Obama administration was also significant, and I'll get to that in a moment.

The first of Rogin's two articles made classic use of the FOX News Question Mark with the title: “'New START' dead on arrival?” The article's title seems to be derived soley from quotes from the Senate's most strident arms control opponent, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and a statement from Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) that he doesn't have a vote count yet.

I spoke with John Isaacs, who is the Executive Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. I asked him what he thought of the “dead on arrival” implication. He said:

I think Josh Rogin took a couple of quotes, including from unfriendly sources, and wove it into a story that goes beyond what, certainly, a lot of people feel.

Let me start off with this. There's certainly a lot of uncertainty. We don't know when the treaty will be signed. Without knowing when the treaty will be signed, we don't know when it might be considered. There's also uncertainty because the Senate schedule is always uncertain, 365 days a year, assuming they're meeting.

So it's certainly possible that the treaty does not get considered by the Senate this year. But to treat it both as a given that the treaty won't be considered this year, or, alternatively, the treaty is “dead on arrival”, both are wrong. One is definitely overstated, and one is simply wrong on the facts, as far as I'm concerned.

I know I'm more optimistic than most people, but on the New START agreement, you have Republicans such as McCain of Arizona and Lugar of Indiana and Corker of Tennessee have already more or less endorsed the treaty. You also have ten Senators who signed a letter in 2009 telling the Obama administration not to [weaken] missile defense, but saying it's important to negotiate a New START treaty. Among the signers are people like Jon Kyl, and Sessions of Alabama, and Lieberman of Connecticut, and others.

But again, it is true that things could get delayed. The Nuclear Posture Review has been delayed. The signing of the New START agreement has been delayed, and Senate consideration of the treaty is [therefore] delayed.

Rogin's second article regarding New START again had a provocative headline that was barely held up by the contents of the article. The headline claimed that “Hill sources” say there won't be a New START treaty in 2010, period, but only cites vague statements by (clearly) opposition sources. Again, it's a huge overstatement of whatever thin facts there are.

Most importantly, as Kingston Reif over at the Nukes of Hazard blog notes, Rogin updated his article with a statement from Harry Reid's office, stating that the Senate is expecting to have the New START treaty under consideration in 2010, and that they “have seen nothing to this point to alter this expectation…”.

Reif points out that:

Reid's statement demonstrates that the judgment expressed by Rogin's “multiple Hill sources” was premature and that these sources may have come from only one side of the aisle.

Rogin's tendency to rely on opposition sources for information, anonymous or otherwise, should be a red flag for the White House. Rogin has proven time and again that he likes to talk to Senator Kyl in particular. Allowing one of the fiercest opponents to nuclear arms control to dominate the debate is dangerous in so many ways.

In fact, Max Bergmann at the Center for American Progress nailed it when he pointed out that Kyl et al. will try to obstruct arms control treaties in much the same way that the Republicans have obstructed health care legislation. Specifically:

Kyl may now try to avoid outwardly opposing START, using instead Senate processes to covertly gum up ratification. Kyl knows that delaying START by even a year would be a significant setback to the entire arms-control agenda. Delaying may not ultimately defeat START, but it would effectively kill all the momentum behind Obama’s global zero vision, something that Kyl is very much opposed to.

Yet we haven't heard a single word from the White House in response to anything Senator Kyl and his friends have been saying. I'm pleased that Harry Reid's office responded to one of Rogin's articles, but given the fact that the Obama administration has given such top-tier billing to nuclear weapons issues, you'd think it would be wise to respond and debunk some of the spin, especially at this crucial moment when so many delays are giving an opening for attacks, whether they're warranted or not.

The Obama administration needs to look back at how Jon Kyl helped crush ratification of the Comprehensive (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty in 1999, and learn a lesson from that example. In a recent conversation I had with the nuclear weapons historian Richard Rhodes, he described it this way:

Jon Kyl managed to subvert [the test ban treaty] before, in a really diabolical sneak attack, where he conned the Democrats into raising the issue of ratification after he was sure he had the votes to defeat it and then took them up on it.

The lesson to the Obama administration is this: do not let the opposition get the upper hand here. They know what they're doing, and they will get their way. Come out with a statement before it's too late.

This is Obama's “dream”, if you will, this dream of a world where nuclear weapons play a more diminished role, where our national security is less dependent on nuclear deterrence than ever before.

It's time to step up to the plate and win the nuclear PR war.

This entry was posted in New START, Nuclear Weapons and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>