New START ratification: “not a bipartisan but a non-partisan challenge…”

Sen. John Kerry, chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee listens to New START testimony on May 18, 2010. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist Chad J. McNeeley/Released). Click for more information.

Last month, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (SFRC) began a series of hearings on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which Presidents Obama and Medevedev signed at the beginning of April. I’ve written extensively about the treaty, which is an agreement between the United States and Russia that was first signed in 1991. It has to be evaluated periodically, setting new goals for post-Cold War reductions of our respective strategic nuclear arsenals. Each country’s legislative bodies have to ratify the treaty, which is what has been one of the big topics of discussion in arms control circles this spring.

Of course, there are difficulties to overcome in the US Senate regarding ratification of the treaty; I’ve discussed this on several occasions, as have a number of other people. We’re all tentatively predicting ratification of the treaty, though probably with less votes than it has been ratified in the past.

What’s been going on at the SFRC hearings is what I’d like to focus on today, however. The testimony has come from an impressive line-up of people with extensive history in the arms control arena. They’ve presented solid, convincing testimony regarding why the treaty must be ratified, and why not ratifying the treaty, or delaying ratification, is not in the interest of national or even global security.

Although those who have voiced concerns about the treaty have all been Republicans, the running theme in all of the testimony has not been “bipartisanship”. As Henry Kissinger said (pdf) in the May 25, 2010 hearing, the issue of New START ratification is, quite simply:

This Committee’s decision will affect the prospects for peace for a decade or more. It is, by definition, not a bipartisan but a non-partisan challenge.

In other words, national security issues like arms control treaties should transcend partisan concerns and should not be politicized. The discussion should be about whether or not the details of the New START treaty are in the best interest of our national security, and are truly representative of a move away from Cold War thinking and into the twenty-first century.

This is what brings us to last week’s hearing. The media reports are few, but what they’ve mostly emphasized is that the SFRC will vote on New START before August, and therefore send the treaty to the Senate floor before the Senate goes on its August break (see The Hill blog and the Agence-France Press.)

That’s definitely a story worth reporting, but what I think is more noteworthy is something very specific that was said in the hearing.

Testimony was given by Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, USAF (Ret.) and George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor (2005 – January 2009), The Honorable Stephen J. Hadley. An exchange took place between Senator Kaufman (D-NE) and Gen. Scowcroft regarding missile defense. Note what Scowcroft says:

SEN. KAUFMAN: And I don’t know what else this administration can do outside of renting a billboard in downtown Washington to say that missile defense is not included in this treaty. I mean, they have said it over and over in hearing and hearing, and everyone we’ve had up here to testify, wherever they are in the administration, whether it’s the military or Ambassador — (inaudible) — or whoever else, they start out discussions, look, let’s make it perfectly clear because they realize that this is an issue that’s very sensitive.

So I don’t know what else they can do to kind of convince folks that this is not part of the deal.

… Do you think there’s some kind of secret deal, I mean, that’s going on, which is what’s also implied by many of the critics?

GEN. SCOWCROFT: No, I would say that on both sides this is an issue of domestic politics.

In short, the arguments over treaty details are political, and not based on substance.

Brookings Institute Senior Fellow (and former Ambassador) Steven Pifer emphasizes this point as well (boldface emphasis is mine):

Those who criticize New START have failed so far to make a substantive case against its ratification. That may be one reason why Republican senators have raised questions about the treaty, but only one has declared that he will outright oppose it…


Should New START become a political football, subject to the kind of partisan fighting that characterized the health care debate, all bets on ratification are off. But the Senate thus far appears to be approaching the treaty in the spirit of weighing what is in the national interest. If that spirit holds and the Senate judges the treaty on its merits, we should expect Senate consent to New START’s ratification.

To repeat: keep partisan politics out of New START ratification. Polarizing the issue is not helpful; that goes for blogs, think tanks, and columnists, as well as our Senators.

This week’s hearings involve testimony from treaty negotiators as well as Pentagon and Missile Defense Agency officials. Hopefully the treaty’s few opponents will listen carefully to the technical details, and base whatever decision they make on the facts versus party line politics.

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