Delayed START could be costly

Kevin Bunkley

I will refrain from any Cold War cliches as best I can, but talking about the United States, Russia and arms control is going to make that harder than hiding missiles in Cuba. The Senate is currently threatening to stall debate on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) legislation, which poses some enormous diplomatic problems. If they fail to ratify such an important treaty before the end of the year, Congress risks not only disappointing Russia, but also lowering American credibility around the world because they will have inadvertently cast a spotlight onto how partisan and gridlocked our political system has become.

The first START evolved from the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and SALT II; treaties that Presidents Ford and Carter signed with the Soviet Union. Over the years, arms control has been one of the few issues that American and Russian leaders have found common ground on. In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan was privately against arms control in fear that it would weaken the United States’ ability to respond to nuclear war, so he campaigned on missile defense expansion as an alternative to nuclear weapons. Instead of signing treaties that controlled how much the two sides could build up, Reagan wanted to be the one who rid the world of nuclear weapons altogether. In 1987, he signed a treaty with the USSR banning intermediate-range ballistic and nuclear missiles; Republicans hailed him for it, and his successor, Bush Sr., rode that momentum to get START approved in 1991.

It is because of these agreements that the United States and Russia have reduced their missile count by 17,000 over the last 40 years. The GOP, who hold arms control so dear because of the patronage of Reagan and Bush Sr. cannot and should not let it expire because of partisan politics. Senator John Kyl (R-Ariz.) said last year, “For the first time in 15 years, an extensive set of verification, notification [and] elimination … measures will expire. The United States will lose … its ability to understand Russian strategic nuclear forces.”

Sen. Kyl is now leading the Republican obstruction to reaching an agreement; it is perplexing as to why they are abandoning their conservative icon Ronald Reagan when a chance to do something he would do is staring them in the face. Republicans are so afraid of appearing on the same piece of paper with President Obama that they have concluded doing nothing is the best option. They should listen to fellow Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who said, “Every senator has an obligation in the national security interest to take a stand, to do his or her duty.” That’s why he is asking Democrats to vote anyway — he understands the larger consequences.

If Congress does not do its duty, Russia won’t even entertain the idea of such a deal again for a long time. President Dmitri Medvedev risked a lot to get his government to support the treaty and won’t be happy if Obama fails on his promise. Republicans should realize hurting their own president comes at the risk of undermining a powerful international diplomatic ally. Is that worth having the satisfaction that they defeated an Obama policy goal? Furthermore, failure to renew this deal will discredit the United States’ dedication to future negotiations with other nations; if we couldn’t deliver on this, will next time be any different?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out a further ramification of putting negotiations on hold: American inspectors haven’t been allowed into Russian military installations in over a year. One would think everyone could agree that not knowing where Russia’s nuclear arms are is not a good thing. And it’s unbelievable that Republicans also ignored Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) point that there is high bipartisan support for the treaty. This is an opportunity for Republicans to come out against the status quo of petty partisanship in Washington, but it’s as if they have selective amnesia that causes them to forget everything they’ve previously said about the Obama administration.

Democrats should follow through on Lugar’s proposal. It’s far better for a few Democrats to lose their seats in Congress in 2012 because they did the right thing than have the whole Russian Parliament, along with the rest of Europe, laughing at our dysfunctional domestic politics. Democrats are trying to draw just one positive achievement from the empty, all-consuming petty void that our politics have become, and it’s about time the GOP lend a hand.

Kevin Bunkley is a columnist at The Hoya at Georgetown University.